Today’s post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member Alexandra Levit.

I recently chatted with my friend and colleague Laurie Ruettimann, who has spent decades as a human resources and workforce thought leader and has brought her wisdom and candor to the new book Betting on You: Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career.


Alexandra: In the book, you talk a lot about advocating for yourself and your career. Why is this critical, and what's the #1 mistake you see people make as they proceed in their careers?


Laurie: When I was new to Corporate America, I thought the purpose of work was to show up, dazzle my bosses with excellent skills, and get paid a lot of money for my efforts. It didn't take long to learn that work is all about solving problems. If you solve complex challenges, you ascend the career ladder faster and earn more money.


Because I had student debt to pay, I threw myself into my job. I learned the hard way that peak performance requires a commitment to continuous learning, relentless focus on well‐being, and the self‐confidence to take risks with your professional life. Nobody can do anything remarkable at work if they are mentally and physically exhausted and afraid to jeopardize their paychecks.


What makes career pivoting challenging in the 21st century? What are some of the greatest opportunities?

We are living in a time of economic insecurity, and I'm not just talking about COVID‐19. First, most traditional careers still make you start from the bottom. So, if you want to move from a role in human resources to nursing, you essentially have to start over with your education and certifications. Sure, there are accelerated programs available in some industries. But a pivot is often time‐intensive and expensive. If you have family or financial obligations, it's an unrealistic burden to bear. Also, automation and digitization are rapidly transforming specific sectors of our economy. It's hard to pivot when the future is so uncertain.

The good news is that we're living in the golden age of learning. You can attend the "University of the Internet" and research the heck out of your desired career path. It's also possible to take free online courses or connect with industry thought leaders on various social media platforms before investing your time and money. With a bit of time and energy, the future can be less risky for those thinking about making a career move.

Do women still have it much tougher in the business world? What are things career‐driven women can do to even the playing field?

Yes, it's more challenging to be a woman in business. What's more frustrating is that we've been talking about equal pay for equal work for a long time. I'm not sure career‐driven women can level the playing field, nor is it their responsibility. This effort falls squarely on the shoulders of HR. I'm thrilled that total rewards technology is finally getting its time in the spotlight. Using artificial intelligence and integrating machine learning into a robust HCM suite, it's now possible to analyze the entire employee lifecycle and glean insights on the employee experience in a new way.

For example, we no longer have to wait for someone to submit an annual employee survey and tell us that they're disengaged and upset by discrimination, pay inequality, bias, or lack of belonging. We can see employee data in real time, compare it to overall trends, and address those concerns proactively. And we no longer have to wait for anybody, man or woman, to tell us that they're not earning enough or progressing fast enough in their careers. HR can know about an employee's obstacles and barriers before they even know themselves — and we can fix it. How cool is that?


How can HR reps and managers better support people in their professional development goals?

For so long, professional development was a company‐driven endeavor focused on training workers to improve their current roles. If a manager was progressive, maybe he threw in some classes to help an employee get a promotion.

Thankfully, HR and managers have slowly accepted the radical idea that investing in a worker's future career path means greater productivity today. That's because the happiest and most engaged employees are learning, growing, and thriving.

No job is forever. Workers won't stay with your company for their entire careers. But they'll do a better job today if you create a learning plan that focuses on the future regardless of where they might be employed.


A BIG thank you to Laurie for sharing her thoughts with me. Whether you want to get ahead yourself, or help others get ahead in the most effective way, Laurie can help. Check out Betting on You and her other career resources on her website.

Today’s post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member Martin Armstrong, Vice President of Payroll Shared Services for Charter Communications.

From the very beginning of my professional career, I’ve been intellectually curious about successful people. What makes them successful? What skills do they have that set them apart from the pack? What qualities do they possess – or possess more of – than other, less successful people?

From 2000 to 2012, I researched critical skillsets of successful leaders, and compared those skillsets against common characteristics that I identified from interviewing CEOs, business executives, entrepreneurs, and leaders of nonprofit organizations.   

Over a period of time, five skillsets consistently emerged as critical in enabling successful leaders to transition their jobs, which were merely paid positions that afforded them with regular employment, into significant careers that have stood the test of time, technology, innovation, and agility.  

These 5 skillsets are: Communication, Competency, Embracing Technology, Emotional Intelligence, and Financial Acumen. I refer to these skillsets as “2 Cs, 2 Es, and 1 F”, and can personally attest to the fact that I would not be an executive for a Fortune 100 company without them. 

So, without further ado, here they are:

  1. Communication - It’s hard to imagine anyone having a successful career without the ability to effectively communicate. Communication is a Latin word that means “to share”. Whether your communication is written, verbal, or social media-driven, communication is the key to informing, soliciting, deciding, persuading, influencing, motivating, and inspiring others. In short: it’s the key to almost everything.
  2. Competency - If you want to remain relevant in your chosen field, you must be able to demonstrate the ability to perform your job at the highest possible level. Competency also includes your knowledge of business skills – you should be able to think and act strategically, and your actions should help drive performance that equals results. Leadership skills are also a necessary competency to make optimal decisions and manage change, particularly in a competitive and ever-changing environment. The combination of Competency, Business Skills, and Leadership Skills is a Competency Framework that describes the performance excellence that successful people exhibit on a consistent basis.
  3. Embracing Technology - When you embrace technology, you accept and support technological advancement. If you choose to reject technology, you will surely be left behind. Technology’s impact on innovation and business processes is undeniable and the empirical research regarding the adoption of technological advances is staggering. The Internet of Things (IoT), Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Bots are not just acronyms, but types of automation that are used in every industry and nearly every cross functional job that involves repetitive actions. Embracing technology will allow you to work smarter and not harder.
  4. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) - In 1995, internationally known psychologist Daniel Goleman authored a book called “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ”. Goleman defines Emotional Intelligence (EQ) as the ability to identify, assess, and control one’s own emotions, the emotions of others, and that of groups. Goleman’s 5 Pillars of Emotional Intelligence include: Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Motivation, Empathy, and People Skills.  Dr. Travis Bradberry runs an Emotional Intelligence Lab called TalentSmart and is the author of an award-winning book called “Emotional Intelligence 2.0”. Bradberry’s research suggests that 90% of top performers have a high EQ, 58% of your job performance is attributable to your EQ, and people with a high EQ make $29,000 more annually than their low EQ counterparts.  Successful people practice emotional intelligence strategies until they become a habit, and their long, sustaining careers are a direct beneficiary of such efforts.
  5. Financial Acumen - You most certainly do not have to become a CPA to possess financial acumen, but you should understand how your actions contribute to the financial statements of your organization. Having financial acumen involves a basic understanding of four financial statements: the Income Statement (a statement of income less expenses = net income), Retained Earnings Statement (the amount of net income left after paying dividends), the Balance Sheet (reports a company’s assets, liabilities, and shareholder’s equity), and the Cash Flow Statement (shows cash inflows and outflows from operations, investments, and financing).  As individuals, we know how to manage our monthly household budgets (Income Statement), save for a rainy day (Retained Earnings), understand what assets we own and who we owe (Balance Sheet), and what sources we receive and spend cash from (Cash Flow). We simply need to translate this understanding onto financial statements using financial terms. Successful people understand the importance of financial acumen as it is essential to execute a strategic plan, and to impact a company’s growth and profitability.

Applying these five skillsets will take practice, commitment, and a level of effort that should outweigh any barriers that would prevent you from reaching your maximum potential. If nothing else, always remember that if you do not control your own destiny, someone else will. Should you bring this all together, you too will say that you have transitioned your job into a career. 

This is my penultimate post for the Workforce Institute! I've distilled 42 years of mistakes into my top five career lessons learned. I hope they'll help you save time and prosper.

Over the years, I've been asked for career advice or assistance many many times. How do I find my first job? I hate my job, how can I find a path to something else? I just got laid off and I don't know what to do. I'd like to work for your company, can you connect me there? My boss is great, but not helping me advance. My boss is terrible and sucking the life out of me. I'm only staying in this job because I need the money. How can I get a job like yours? The list goes on and on.

I'm retiring in five days, and have been thinking a lot recently about my own career highlights and disappointments. Everybody's different, but I think the following five lessons are relevant to most people. Like eat less, exercise more, they are both obvious and often hard practices to implement. Moving on to lesson 1...

You are in charge of managing your career

I know you have bills to pay and a boss to answer to. Those aren't reasons to remain unhappy indefinitely at work. Every job has its boring, routine, or downright unpleasant aspects. However, if you never feel excited or optimistic at work, it's worth it to figure out a different path.

BTW - I'm not saying that making a change is easy. You may need to go back to school. You may need to sacrifice compensation or perks. You may need to sacrifice a title. I experienced all of these and lived to tell about it. Don't let fear or ego stop you from doing what you need to do to get to a better place. In fact...

A little fear is healthy

Progress has a price tag in every aspect of life, but especially at work. New jobs, better projects, acquiring new skills, promotions, increasing responsibility and the other good stuff should stretch you to learn new things and operate outside of your comfort zone. Don't let yourself get stuck because you're afraid of appearing incompetent. One of the best ways to become more competent is...

Ask lots of questions

For me this was never hard, because it's in my nature to ask a lot of questions. I also started my career in science, and so was trained to ask lots of questions. I've noticed, though, that this can be hard for a lot of people.

Question why you're doing something before you do it. Ask lots of questions to make sure you understand the objectives and how success will be measured. Ask why "we've always done it this way". Ask others outside your firm how they do it. I can't remember a single significant example where I suffered negative consequences for asking questions. I can remember things that didn't go well when I failed to ask more than I did.

One of the most important questions to ask is to make sure you understand who needs to be part of a project or process before you start changing it. The human element is the most powerful of all in any organizational system. Which brings me to lesson 4...

Put yourself in the other person's shoes

I mentioned that I was educated and even worked for a few years as a scientist. In science, you think in terms of systems. You seek to understand the interdependence between the players in a system. That skill has always served me well.

We're all part of larger systems. Our decisions and actions affect other people for better or worse. Putting yourself in others' shoes isn't just about the Golden Rule (though you should practice that too), it's about stepping far enough back from a situation to understand the goals and constraints of the other players.

This technique is one I learned from Getting to Yes, a terrific book on negotiating. In the book, the technique is referred to as "stepping to the balcony". From the balcony, you can assess how your behavior and assumptions are helping or hurting your case with others.

Speaking of the needs of others...

Don't neglect the life part of work-life balance

My last lesson is one that I often struggled with. My husband and I were fortunate to have challenging and rewarding careers. We got to travel the world on somebody's else's nickel and meet so many smart and accomplished professional colleagues. We were able to give our children the gift of an undergraduate education with no student debt. That all had a cost.

In the olden days, putting family first wasn't typical company policy in most places. You were expected to show up and do your thing. I was a working mother when that was still a somewhat novel concept. I missed events that were important to our children or friends and family for work stuff I can no longer remember. I never wanted to create the impression I wasn't completely on board.

The good news is that many (not all) leaders have come to understand that they get better results when their workers have the time and flexibility to invest in themselves, their families, and their communities. They understand that they are "borrowing people from their lives", a quote I love from Charlotte Lockhart. If your employer doesn't see the world that way, find one that does.

In closing

I hope some of these ideas will help you. I wish you good health and great adventures. Take care of yourselves.

joyce Midd graduationOver the weekend, my Facebook feed was full of posts and pictures from proud friends and family attending graduations.  These events are not only full of pomp and circumstance, but also full of hope and optimism.  For the graduates, that great careers lie ahead in their chosen fields.  For the parents, that their emotional (and financial) investment will pay off in happiness and security for their offspring.

The photo here is of me and my proud mother on my graduation day at Middlebury College in 1978.  By that day, I'd already taken a very hard knock on my dream - which was to attend medical school.  Graduation was bittersweet - an accomplishment and a disappointment.  I didn't get into any of the American schools I applied to, so I had to come up with a different plan.

I was recently asked to contribute to a career advice article in Business News Daily.  For anybody who's worked for a living for a while, you know that dreams come true through (mostly) hard work and some luck.  And your dreams will change over time, due to circumstances and your own self awareness.  For the new graduates out there, as well as anybody thinking about their next career step, here are 4 rules that have stood me well during a 36 year career.

1. You are responsible for planning the path to your dream job.

You are responsible for managing your career - not the boss, not the mentors, not the career services office at the school you attended – you.    You need to articulate what success means to you – including the aspects of your life outside of the job.  Before you can chase that dream job, you need to write your personal vision statement, making it as detailed as possible.  If having the flexibility to work remotely or attend your child’s soccer games is a priority, it should be incorporated into your career planning. Only once you have a clear vision of where you want to be in the next 1-5-20 years, can you construct a roadmap to get there

2. Building a career map requires work.

3.  Sometimes you have to change your plan.

Not everybody aspires to the corner office, but many people aspire to something different or better than the job they currently hold.  One of the downsides of mastering your current job is that it can become monotonous when it is no longer challenging for you to meet your objectives.  When considering a professional change, the best first question to ask is “Am I running toward something or away from something?”  If it’s the former, go for it.  If it’s the latter, the change you need to make may just be a change in department, manager or company, not your current career track.  This is the time to revisit #1 and #2 above. Revisit your career map and adjust your strategy accordingly.

4.  Chance favors the prepared mind.

This is a quote from Louis Pasteur that I have always loved.  Successful people create their own luck by putting themselves in the direct path of opportunity.  Knowledge (about your organization, customers, products and market) is power.  Actively managing your network keeps your name front and center with people who can help you. The more diverse your knowledge and experiences, the better prepared you’ll be to take advantage of opportunities that come your way.  While there are few absolutes in career planning, every successful person I've met thinks more broadly about his or her job than just the role and objectives immediately in front of them.


Creative Commons License photo credit: ToniVC

A colleague just sent me this link regarding "Work Your Proper Hours Day" in the UK. This day is celebrated on February 22nd - the average day on which Britons working unpaid overtime pass the mark where their unpaid labor ends and they begin to work for themselves.

WYPH day is the brainchild of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This organization, with roots going back to 1868, advocates for working people. Their Worksmart site provides tips for employees on how to manage work life balance, and provides a calculator you can use to figure out your individual WYPH day. I took a quiz on their site - it looks like my day is today - March 3. Hmmm - I think I still have a couple of months to go before I stop working for the Government and get to keep the rest.

Many of us have New Year's resolutions relating to achieving better work life balance. Mine was to get home in time to cook dinner (link to a wonderful cookbook) a couple of nights per week. I've been doing ok with that one. Mark Bittman, another one of my favorite cookbook authors, wrote this article in yesterday's New York Times about taking a break from virtual reality each weekend.

What do you do to draw boundaries between work and life outside of work?

As this is the time of year that many people start making their New Year's resolutions - personal and professional - I thought I'd share some of the best career management tips I know. Some of these I learned from others and some I learned the hard way. In any case, here goes:

    1. Do whatever Irene tells you to do and don't embarrass me. whale-watch.jpgThis one comes courtesy of my father. My first job was doing the payroll, manually, at his codfish processing plant in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. (Photo is my family in the harbor in front of that plant last summer). Irene was the long time office manager who knew how to make things happen. Getting to know the Irenes everywhere I've worked since has saved me time and embarrassment.
    2. Speak up. This one applies when you have a good idea and/or when you know that something just isn't right. Organizations rise and fall on the quality and openness of communications between people.
    3. Assertions absent data are just your opinion. This is a corollary to #2. If you want to promote your idea, you need to be able to substantiate its merit with objective data.
    4. The workplace is different for women. Even as organizations have welcomed women into the workforce in the last 30 years, the realities of childbearing and rearing can still throw them for a loop when it comes to contemplating alternative career paths and flexible work options. The world has come a long way since 1985 - when my then employer asked me to sign a letter committing that I wouldn't get pregnant. See this article in yesterday's New York Times regarding what organizations are doing to provide more flexibility for workers.
    5. The company's money is the company's money. In the interest of encouraging employees to be frugal, companies often exhort them to "treat the company's money like it's your own". This seems to confuse some people - whose behavior can lead you to believe that they must live like sultans from Dubai on their own time. Don't waste company resources and don't play games with your expenses. If you need a history lesson on this one, think Enron.
    6. There is power in silence. This is a thesis topic in its own right. Relationships and careers get derailed when things are said in anger, ignorance, or just because the speaker decided to keep talking while s/he shouldn't have. Keeping your mouth shut at the right times gives you time to think.
    7. Email is both friend and foe. I'm old enough to remember the workplace pre-email. It's a fantastic tool for conveying information and agreements quickly to lots of people. The dark side of this ease of use is how much workplace productivity is sacrificed to individuals coping with volumes of email that get in the way of "real work". It's a rotten tool for negotiating agreements. And it makes it way too easy to communicate something in haste that you'll regret later. In 2008, make a promise to yourself to pick up the phone or walk down the hall more frequently.
    8. Selling is the most important skill of all. The years I spent as a sales rep were among the most valuable of my career. Planning and persuasion are key to success in sales - and in business in general. I don't care what your functional expertise is. If you can't persuade others to take action, your own success will be limited.
    9. Management has its ups and downs. This one could also be called "be careful what you wish for". It's great to manage a team of capable, creative and motivated people (as I do now). However, as your responsibilities, compensation, and access to information increase, so does your risk. Your mistakes become more costly and visible and the time you need to invest in doing a good job increases. You have to make tough decisions that can lead to unemployment for people you care about. Not everyone can or should be a manager. Organizations need to continue to find ways to retain highly talented individual performers whose goals don't (or shouldn't) include people management.
    10. Keep your job in perspective. This one isn't always easy, but is probably the most important of all. Jobs have their ups and downs. Organizations do, too. Be respectful of other people, work hard while you're at work, don't be defensive in the face of obstacles, and when you go home, shut the door on the workplace. Much is written about how organizations can help promote work life balance. Ultimately, though, only you can define and protect the work-life boundaries that work for you. If you can't honor that balance in your current job situation, then it's up to you to find one that will work for you.

That's it for my top ten career advice tips. What would you add to the list?

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