How Do You Catch Those Lucky Career Breaks?

careful what you wish for

Image by woodleywonderworks via Flickr

There are opportunities to do great things all around you every day. Sometimes the chances pass by you like friends and neighbors that you know well; they holler, wave and grab your attention. Other times they pass by like strangers, moving quickly, and avoid notice or detection. In both cases the most important thing for you to do is not just to hear, but to listen.

Here’s how.

The Apple store looked much like any of the others you see across the world; jammed with eager customers, helpful, friendly staff, and great product screaming “buy me.”  It was in Hong Kong though, and Apple’s first store in this city-state and special administrative region of 7 million and had been only open 4 weeks. My visit? I’d forgotten to pack my wifi router for my trip to Asian and the hotel only had ethernet plug-in, something my MacBook Air doesn’t date.

I don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin so I glommed on the face of a non-Chinese Apple staffer who I thought most likely to speak English. It helped that she looked like she was helpful, otherwise I would have ducked her as an option and found someone else.

Turns out she did speak English (I’ll call her Mary), and it was the fourth rotational assignment she’d done.  Born in Nevada, she’d worked with Apple for 2 years in Boston, 3 years in DC, and was headed to Stonestown (San Francisco) when she got done with her 6 week Hong Kong assignment – along with 7 other Apple employees – getting the new site up and running.

Her next stop? She’s getting encouragement from Apple to think about a 2-3 year assignment in China.

Mary’s story turns out to be the tale of any number of people who somehow ending up getting all those lucky career breaks, and turning that every next job assignment into the times of their lives.

What do the Mary’s of the world do?

  •  If you don’t go in, you can’t find out. Mary could write the sequel of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Many people navigate each career move as if the risk needs to be painstakingly hedged (“I’d love to consider the move but I need assurances that if it doesn’t work out I’ll move back to the old role.” ) even though the upside outweighs the current role by 5 to 1. Mary? She raises her hand before being asked and jumps right in. In doing so she ends up getting those calls first, not last, because she’d earned a reputation as being willing and eager to take on a challenge. The fact that she delivers on this challenges probably doesn’t hurt; working hard and doing good work never harmed anyone.
  • Risk is everywhere; staying put may be just as much risk as trying something new. A slow death and a fast death are both death. Some people prefer perhaps to be a dead lion rather than a live dog. But not Mary; she knows that with every job move there is something she can add to her career story belt which makes her a little more marketable. Operated in the retail world in New England? Mary can do that. Opened an international operation in Asia? May can do that. Trained new staffers in the nation’s capitol? Mary’s done that. You get the picture; so do the people that are going to be hiring or promoting Mary.
  • Be curious. People like Mary are eager to learn what they don’t know, rather than standing pat just on what they do know. Today I skipped the places the client in Hong Kong suggested I eat; places where expats (e.g. Westerners) usually grab lunch. I wandered 6 blocks away to a noodle shop, got seated at a small bench table with 3 strangers, and had a great meal and even better cultural experience. Curiosity; it may have killed the cat but at least she they didn’t die of boredom.
  • Be friendly.  People who don’t know you – unless they’re the people hawking watches in Kowloon – aren’t so likely to talk with you and share opportunities if you are hostile. People who are friendly like Mary get approached not just because she looks like she can speak English but because she looks like she’s inviting people to say hello and to seek her out. She puts the welcome mat out with a genuine warm smile and an eagerness to help. A guy I worked with recently at my son’s school is usually bristly and has complained about feeling lonely. It’s tough for people to engage folks whose demeanor (a way of describing all the little behaviors that constitute how people react to you) says stay away, not get to know me.

So if you want to be like the Mary’s of the world (or their male equivalent, the Larry’s) it means changing to behaviors that support risk taking if you want greater career optionality. Want to stay stuck? Avoid risk, avoid curiosity, and be all means walk, don’t jump, at chances as they pass you by.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.



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