I hear the term “future-proof” used more and more these days. It’s especially common at training days and conferences, and generally gets a lot of interest. I’ve been to several talks where the main topic is “how to future-proof your career”.
It’s a bit of a buzz phrase, with lots of people fearful that they will be left behind with the introduction of new tech and Artificial Intelligence.
The use of this phrase in itself is typically so that someone like you or I will suddenly start worrying that the world is changing faster than we can cope with. That there is some kind of “magic formula” to immunise us from the ever-changing world of technology at work. That the speaker of this topic or the author of this article somehow has the answers we need to “future-proof” ourselves.
In order to think about “future-proofing”, first, I looked back at what happened with my career in the past. With the value of hindsight, I then thought about what I could have changed or improved in myself. My own career has spanned nearly 15 years, which I appreciate is a relatively short amount of time in this context. However, it’s all I’ve got to work with!
Back when I started my administrative career at the ripe age of 18, I was responsible for the general office admin for a stockbroking firm. I booked some travel, did some filing, and generally helped out where I was needed. I remember booking business trips which required paper tickets, I remember organising drivers via fax, and I remember organising events which had open bars (those were the days!).
Flash forward 15 years and it’s all travel apps, remote working, and GDPR. If I could go back in time and “future-proof” my career, what would I do?
What did I actually do?
Well, actually, nothing which I could now describe as “future-proofing”. I learned as much as I could, from as many people as possible. I had a mentor who was more experienced than I, to whom I would go to with all my career questions. I was ambitious and wanted to understand how my company worked.
In each company I worked, large and small, I took on more tasks than I was originally hired to do. I didn’t always get directly rewarded for them financially, but the extra things I was able to put onto my CV later on ended up being that reward. I moved up the career ladder relatively quickly with all this extra experience.
Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily describe this as “future-proofing” my career, had I not put that effort in, I’d still be in the same role that I was doing 10 years ago, refusing to take on extra work until I got paid extra for it.
But on the flip side to that, had I been working for a different team at some of the companies I worked for, I might have been in the unfortunate position of being made redundant. Was I lucky? Yes, a little. But I also took on a team so large that they still needed me when 25% of the people I supported were shown the door. At this point I was also doing ad-hoc work for the COO team within my department so I made myself valuable to them.
From when I started at that company, to when I left, my salary increased by a total of about 2%. This was over a 6 year period. The skills I learned there, and the tasks I took on, put me in the top tier of PAs when it came to looking for another role. I was no longer a small fish in the big recruitment pond. I was the shark.
Firstly, I’d stop listening to anyone who tells you they can “future-proof” your career. Nothing is guaranteed and you could just as easily get made redundant as you could get promoted. Or the company might go bust, or you might want a career change and go into something completely different.
Focus your efforts in three areas:
Learn things which could help you in more than one company and more than one industry. For example, diary management and gate-keeping will be prerequisites in virtually any PA role. As will softer skills like understanding how to deal with difficult people, or organisational skills. Learn which habits are good ones to get into to be productive, and build up your confidence in your own ability.
Take every opportunity you can to learn about your company. If you are explaining your role to someone else (i.e. a recruiter), you will come across much better if you are able to give context around your role and how it impacts other people in the company.
“I manage the CEO’s diary, prep him for his meetings, do his expenses, and manage his inbox”…versus:
“The CEO meets lots of different companies so it’s important that I know who he is meeting so that I can suggest other team members who might need to join. I flag important emails to him, especially ones which require his urgent attention. I brief him on what’s been going on in other departments so that he can keep up to date even when he’s out and about.”
Which one makes you sound like you know what you are doing?
Having a large network is utterly invaluable. I can’t reinforce this enough. When you are looking for meeting spaces, restaurants, or a new job, the more people you know, the better. I’ve lost count of the number of people I have reached out to for help, and I’m grateful to each and every one of them. If anyone reading this has a question for me, I genuinely welcome you to give me a shout on email or LinkedIn. If I can help, I will. If not, I might know someone else who can!
It also works internally too. How many times have you needed help with your computer, your phone, or trying to get that box off of the really high shelf? Taking the time to know your colleagues will help you time and time again.
So, to conclude, if you are looking to “future-proof” your career, you are not going to find a magic answer. However, if you want to give your career the best shot you possibly can to progress as far as you can, you need to work hard, learn a lot, and connect with everyone. That’s not future-proofing – that’s called being a great employee.