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PROTEAN PROFESSIONALS

Watch: Quartz’s workshop on career building in quarantine

  • Heather Landy
By Heather Landy

Executive editor of Quartz

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Covid-19 has dislocated millions of workers around the world, with more job upheaval to come. But even in normal, non-pandemic times, the arc of a career is rarely a smooth, graceful curve. It usually involves lots of bends, twists, and dips, whether because of personal choices we’ve made about how we want to spend our time or where we want to live, or because of macro changes in the labor market that are well outside our control. 

It somehow always feels personal, though, particularly for those of us who derive some portion of our identity from our work and who rely on it to structure our day and provide us with a sense of purpose.

At a workshop on career building in quarantine, part of the Quartz at Work (from home) series of seminars, a trio of presenters offered some big-picture ideas and tactical advice for navigating your career, whether you’re nearing the end of it or still at the very beginning of it, or somewhere in between.

Here’s a recap of their presentations.

Disruption and the protean career

Tomoko Yokoi is a researcher at the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation at IMD Business School in Switzerland. She reminded the audience that even before Covid-19, the future of work was unpredictable—mainly because of digitalization. 

In a 2019 study examining the power and speed of digital disruption in 14 sectors across 58 countries, Yokoi and her colleagues found that over two years’ time, all 14 sectors moved closer to the center of what she calls “the digital vortex,” as both the velocity and impact of change from digitalization increased.

That amount of disruption suggests the old, linear model of education, work, and retirement is no longer fitting. We are also living longer lives, Yokoi noted. ”Children born in rich countries today have a 50% chance of living beyond 105,” she said, suggesting they will need a different approach to the pacing of their careers. Be prepared for “multiple transitions,” she said, with periods of re-skilling, and even “parallel jobs” as people start transitioning out of positions that are becoming obsolete and into new types of jobs. The proverbial “side hustle” could also become a more common fixture in people’s careers, she said.

As the robots take over more and more functions in the workplace, what skills should people be focused on improving in order to stay relevant? Yokoi recommends developing a “HAVE” mindset, which stands for humble (i.e. an ability to accept feedback), adaptable (and accepting of the idea that change is constant), visionary (staying aware of the long-term direction even during short-term disruptions, and engaged (honing your curiosity and communication skills).

Lastly, she talked about the concept of a “protean career,” borrowing the term coined by Douglas T. Hall to describe a career built according to one’s own values, and measured according to one’s satisfaction with life and work as opposed to money or stature. Understanding what’s most important to you is an excellent way to stay in a state of readiness, so that you’re prepared to jump at the right opportunities as they arise.

Further reading: Check out the book Yokoi recommended, The 100-Year Life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew J. Scott, and read the Quartz at Work article she wrote about why there’s never been a better time to build a protean career. 

Advice about resumes and cover letters

Quartz talent lab editor Holly Ojalvo, who has reviewed loads of job applications submitted to major newsrooms and to her former media startup, got tactical with her recommendations for writing resumes and cover letters.

But do you still even need a cover letter in this day and age? If you have the option to submit one, do so, she says.

A well-crafted cover letter serves many purposes, according to Ojalvo. For starters, it:

  • Puts your resume into context
  • Allows you to share relevant background or a story not captured on your resume
  • Conveys your voice

How long should a cover letter or resume be? Ojalvo says she makes no hard and fast rules on that. If one page sufficiently communicates what you need to say, keep it to one page. If you have several years of experience covering a fair number of responsibilities that deserve to be noted, go longer. Just steer clear of fluff and “pick a style that suits you—and do it well,” she said. 

She also recommended citing accomplishments, not just responsibilities, and connecting whatever dots you can between your experience and the job. A final tip from Ojalvo: If you’re struggling to write about yourself, try writing a draft in the third person, the way a good friend or close colleague would, and then put it back in first-person format. This should help you strike the right balance between being too much of a braggart and being too modest about your achievements and experience.

Further reading: Quartz members can access the complete slide deck from Ojalvo’s presentation. Don’t have a Quartz membership? Sign up for a free, seven-day trial. 

Don’t be afraid to be different

Andy Didorosi last year beat out nearly 1,500 other applicants to become head of marketing at the software company Basecamp. He wasn’t a shoo-in, and not only because he had never been a marketing executive before.

When the search came down to Didorosi and two other finalists, the company asked each candidate to come up with a marketing plan for the year based on a $1 million budget. With the knowledge that Basecamp hadn’t previously been aggressive on marketing, he eschewed the idea of a big campaign. Instead, he said, his idea “was a lot of small experiments, it was a lot of poking” around. “The CEO came back to me and said, ‘Hey, this doesn’t really have the big idea that we need in it,” he recalled. “I took a day and I responded back and said, ‘I don’t think there really needs to be a big concept.'”

Other companies might have bristled at a candidate standing their ground in the face of disagreement, but with Basecamp, the stance worked. “I found out later that they kind of shifted what they wanted” for the role, Didorosi said. “First they wanted a big agency person to do the big marketing work, but then they really thought about it” and decided a smaller splash made more sense based on the company’s size and culture.

And that’s how Didorosi, who opened a small-business incubator in Michigan at the age of 22 and was previously best known as the founder of The Detroit Bus Company, a startup with a social mission, became the head of marketing at Basecamp.

As for what he did to reach the finalist round, Didorosi drew on the marketing chops he developed as a founder and explained why his other experience was relevant to the role (“I’m only 33 but I’ve worked in a bunch of different capacities,” he said).

“I definitely did not think I had the level of experience required to be the head of marketing at Basecamp,” he said. “You start getting the self-doubt, the imposter syndrome.” But he went ahead and quickly crafted a resume and cover letter—it took about 10 minutes, he said, and it was very specific to Basecamp.

“I wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear; I was just sharing with them information from my past that would be interesting to them,” said Didorosi. And he would give the same advice to anyone else. “Do not lie, do not fluff things up,” he said. “Just be really honest with what you can do.” Also, be specific about why you’re the right fit for a particular role with a particular company. “No form letter,” he said, “just write something for them.”

Further reading: Still think resumes and cover letters have outlived their usefulness? You’re partially correct, but the absence of a mainstream alternative suggests the old-fashion resume still matters. What will eventually take its place? Quartz at Work suggests the resume of the future will tell employers who you are, and not just what you’ve done.

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