Our Take: Your Career's Alpha

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"Career path." That's a phrase often spoken by HR staffers eager to show young employees that management is meeting their need for professional growth. Does the phrase mean anything - or is it simply hot air?

The question never occurred to me before I joined eFinancialCareers in April of 2007. Like many of you, perhaps, all of my career moves were driven by opportunism, more a string of chance events than a consciously planned "path." On the other hand, a widely cited body of research has documented that careers, like portfolios, benefit from a coherent planning process that includes written goals, timetables and periodic monitoring.

If individual careers perform best when designed with an underlying structure and purpose, so do job boards. Here at eFC, our unifying theme is actually an extension of the portfolio analogy mentioned above. We call it "active career management."

What exactly is active career management? It can be summarized this way: Devote consistent attention toward your career goals and prospects, even when you aren't looking for a job.

Start by Plotting Your Course

A prerequisite for actively managing your career is to understand your own path. That requires figuring out where you wish to go, and assessing whether your present job and employer are helping you get there. Whether the answer is yes or no, you'll have to determine which new skills you need to advance to future stages, and how market changes are likely to affect your progress.

To generate alpha from your portfolio of career assets, you must have a strategy for marketing yourself to employers (including your present employer, if that's where you expect to advance to the next stage). eFC's chief executive, John Benson, describes five key planks:

- Identify firms that will appreciate your skills

- Know how you can solve their specific needs

- Demonstrate your track record with real data

- Write it down

- Have a mentor whose guidance you can seek

Whether you plan on remaining with your current employer or making a move soon, each of these is vital to achieving your goals. For instance, thinking concretely about how you can contribute to rival firms will accomplish two things: sharpen your understanding of your industry's competitive conditions, and help you make the case that amply rewarding or promoting you will advance your current company's business goals.

Network, Stay Ahead of the Curve, Utilize Recruiters

Weaving networking into one's business lifestyle is also an essential aspect of active career management. Venues for networking include your own company, professional associations, and your business school's or university's alumni. To succeed at building and maintaining a network, always remember it's a two-way street. Do favors - preferably before requesting favors - and be a resource for others. And when you receive help, say thanks. If you send a meaningful token of appreciation each time a referral leads to a contract or job offer, your contact will be more likely to help again in the future.

Staying up to date on your industry and specialty is vital as well. That goes beyond keeping your skills state-of-the-art. It also means keeping on top of market and business conditions so you'll have a feel for where opportunities and threats to your career may be germinating at any given time.

Whether you're looking for a new job or not, get in the habit of consulting industry news publications, your own network of contacts and, yes, eFinancialCareers to keep your finger on the pulse of your sector's business and hiring climate.

Finally, use recruiters properly. Build relationships with two or three whose careers will parallel yours. If you share information with them, you'll get information in return. Raising your profile among peers - by performing committee work for professional groups, for example - will make it easier for recruiters to both notice and market you.

Originally published May 9, 2008.

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