By Fawn Germer
Best-selling Author, Global Leadership Speaker & Four-time Pulitzer Prize Nominee
Three hundred interviews into my most recent book on career survival and revival, someone asked me what surprised me the most.
“That everybody is so shocked when their career tanks,” I said. “They all think it won’t happen to them.”
And then, bam! It happens.
A once promising, fast-track career starts to slow down a little, and then a little more, and then it dives straight into the crash heap of irrelevance.
Most of you know me because of my long relationship with NEW as a women’s leadership speaker and best-selling author. After a Summit, I wound up in the lounge with about 10 of my role models. As the wine flowed, some stories were shared that, frankly, shocked the hell out of me.
Here were trailblazing senior executives who were at the top of their games, yet they were sharing stories of feeling pushed aside or cast out. These were painful stories, and what hit me was that they were the same kinds of stories I was hearing from friends and neighbors.
What was this?
I knew I was going to have to write a book on the agony of age discrimination.
It wasn’t until I started doing the interviews that I learned that the problem really isn’t age. It’s relevance. Yes, age discrimination is rampant, but that’s because there are assumptions that, as we age, we don’t not stay current.
This is stain that attaches itself to younger women who take time-outs to raise kids, or those who leave to care for loved ones, or even those who get on a sailboat for a few years to see the world. If you are older or haven’t been active in the workplace, there is an assumption that you are clueless about driving the company into the future.
If you can’t demonstrate that you have been independently upskilling and doing the learning that will help you lead change in a tech-driven world, you are going to get the dreaded hashtag: #hasbeen.
Being “tech-savvy kinda-sorta” is not enough. You have to be current.
Take some time to google “trends in the (fill in the blank) industry” to see what is coming, technologically. Then study how those trends will impact your company, profession, and specific job.
Look for online classes that will give you the education you need to get caught up. My favorite resources are at coursera.org and edx.org. I can learn from professors at Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Cambridge, Wharton – all the great schools – and do it for free. Even better: I don’t need the credit and I don’t need another degree! What I need is the knowledge, so I don’t need to obsess over tests. I just need to do the class.
When something is complicated, I always start with YouTube first. Blockchain was tough on my brain. I watched a few YouTube videos and was still hopelessly confused about the technology that is now so crucial in supply chain and cryptocurrency. Then I found a five-minute YouTube video on how to teach blockchain to a five-year-old. Finally, I got it!
Waging a career comeback – whether you are employed or not –– requires doing some tough love on yourself. Stop deluding yourself about what you offer your company and admit your shortcomings. If a someone else can do more than you can for a lot less money, who is the company going to bet on? Your experience really doesn’t count for much these days. It’s nice to have, but companies aren’t so concerned about what you did 10 or 20 years ago. They want to know that you are the person best positioned to lead the company into the next five years.
So if you are in a job interview, don’t lead with the fact that you have three decades of experience. Lead with the fact that you’ve been taking classes in innovation or artificial intelligence or robotics or whatever, and that you are the one to apply crucial new skills to challenges facing the company. Make conversations more current and compelling by sprinkling tidbits what you learned reading The Wall Street Journal, Inc., Fast Company, Harvard Business Review and other publications. Once you demonstrate your relevance, your experience starts to help because you likely have the ability to communicate and lead.
Your professional brand has to advertise your relevance. It is advertised in what you choose to learn, the things you say and how you look. Relevance is the one thing that drives a successful career from beginning to end.
If you’ve got it, flaunt it. If you don’t have it, it’s time to actively make your comeback.