A personal reflection – key lessons from an unconventional career trajectory and the skills needed to adapt in an uncertain and volatile workplace.

I recalled the first part of this story at my Dad’s funeral 6 years ago… I was 17 years old, stuck in a tedious job (hole punching in a sheet metal factory), generally grumbling about how rubbish my life was and my Dad said to me, “Son, you have to get out there and do something about it, it won’t come knocking on your door, you know!”.  My Dad was of course a wise man, and one of my most valued teachers.  However, he got this one completely wrong… because the very next day, my next door neighbour genuinely knocked on my door to see if I wanted a job (working for his furniture fitting business)!!  Well, I was 17 and this seemed a hell of a lot more interesting punching holes in sheets of metal, so I took it!   Mind you, I am pretty sure this wasn’t the lesson in  ‘having to put effort in, to get reward out’ that my Dad was hoping for me to receive at this pivotal point of my life…

This introduced me to the first of 4 significant and successful chunks of work in 4 very different industries, and my entry into each industry was not always conventional.  It needs to be noted that school really wasn’t right for me, the only subjects that I was interested in were graphics, art and sport (basically the ones that got me out of the classroom) .  I ended up leaving before I took my exams and left without qualifications.  So, out in the real world, the only thing I had to sell myself was my attitude, effort and willingness to give things a go.

My first proper job (furniture fitting), let’s put that one down to luck and being in the right place at the right time. However, I learnt some of my most valuable life and practical skills in this job under the guidance of a great mentor and boss (cheers, Tony Skinner).  I went from being a labourer to project foreman in a few years because he gave me the chance, I learnt quickly on the job and I took the opportunity when it came my way!

  • Key lessons? Luck plays its part, but you have to take the chances given; if you put the effort in and have the right guide, then it’s possible to learn new skills, progress in a role and take on new responsibilities.

My second industry was magazine publishing (random!).  I needed a change, and I fancied this because of some notion of interest in graphics/creativity while I was at school.  I knew I didn’t have the qualifications, or any relevant experience, so I completed a part time evening IT course at the local FE college and this was enough to get me an entry level job as a typesetter.  Once in this job I realised that the design side of publishing wasn’t really for me, but an opportunity within the production side of things came up. This was at a time when printing was making a huge technological shift from reprographics to ‘straight to plate’ technology. My manager thought I could do it, but I had to learn some highly technical/IT related skills in a short space of time.  I also needed to develop my empathy and influencing skills (some people had to significantly change their working practices while some roles simply wouldn’t exist anymore).

  • Key lessons? Be willing and open to change your plans;  learning new skills opens doors for you; don’t assume that your role will be stable and secure forever.

And then along came my kids, which leads me to my third proper ‘job’ – being a full time parent (ok, possibly not an industry (?) but it really was a draining and full time job!).  My wife and I decided that we wanted one of us to be at home to look after our children.  We decided that we would have to manage on one salary for a while and as her salary was higher than mine it made sense for me to stay at home.  I actually found this ‘role’ incredibly difficult for a number of reasons (not least of which was that I can’t stand ironing!).  I like to feel I am in control, but looking after tiny human beings with no definitive instruction manual was completely alien to me.  Yes, I read all the books and attended some of the groups, but nothing seemed to give me the answers I was looking for.  However, both my children (now 15 and 17) are still alive and they are turning into pretty decent young adults, so I can’t have failed completely in this role… (though I’ll make a final evaluation of my performance in this role in a few years time ?).

  • Key Lessons? Research and planning is important, but sometimes you just have to go with gut feeling.  You have to be willing to throw yourself into things with your heart and soul.  Oh and I really do not like ironing!

And finally, 12 years ago I literally fell, by chance, into my forth and current industry – namely, workplace learning. I moved from Essex to Northamptonshire and was looking for work.  I attended a careers advice session hoping to get some interview skills support. Two hours later I got a phone call from that organisation asking if I wanted a job selling NVQs (I mean, come on Dad – it really does come knocking on your door ?).  I quickly realised that selling wasn’t really my thing, but since then I have been a careers advisor, a tutor, an assessor, a coach, a mentor, a quality assurer, a manager and a director.  I got my roles through research, targeted and speculative job hunting; getting the right qualifications and accreditations; being in the right place at the right time; taking a chance; networking; and just having to adapt to changing situations. I have also benefitted greatly from having two strong mentors (Jayne Wise and Rebecca ‘Beccy’ Tarbox), who provided me with the right balance of nurturing, support, challenge and belief to enable me to grow in confidence and progress in my roles. They have both had a huge amount of influence in my life and I thank them both for that.

And now my career path in this industry continues to evolve – launching a small workplace learning business ‘accentuate’ with Beccy Tarbox (an excellent colleague and now a close friend, who incidentally I reconnected with two 2 and half years ago by chance on LinkedIn).  It’s possibly not the best time to be setting up a new business in workplace learning, and I don’t think either of us would have guessed 6 months ago that this is where we would be right now. However, particular circumstances outside our control dictated that we took this decision, and now there is no looking back – we are having a great time, we are in control, and we are building something we are both proud of doing something we are both passionate about.

  • Key lessons? Build strong networks; listen to others; learn new skills and gain qualifications; research, prepare and target;  be driven and self motivated; demonstrate willingness (to try new things, to be willing to change); make your own luck; be true to your values and principles.

I recognise that my career trajectory isn’t for everyone, some people will have clear career paths mapped out, whereas others may want to stay in a particular industry.  Indeed, an enlightening moment for me was when I attended a workshop for careers advisors with the well regarded and excellent careers tutor Liane Hambly.  I was expressing my concerns about not having a grand career plan for the next 10 years (thinking there was something wrong with me).  She explained to me ‘planned happenstance theory’, and that many people don’t have that grand plan.  What is more important for many is recognising and taking advantages of opportunities as they come your way.

Regardless of what your career plans are however, it would be unwise to think that any job is for life any more.  The current levels of uncertainty, unpredictability and change required in the workplace suggest that a positive and proactive approach to flexibility and a willingness to learn, try new things, change and adapt would be sensible strategies for anyone.  We need to take the chances when they come and we need to make our own luck.  We need to build a strong network of family, friends and colleagues who we can help and who in turn can help us.  We need to be self motivated, believe in ourselves and be true to our values.  If we have these things in place, we should be able to ride out any storm…

At accentuate we want to use our experiences and skills to help others get the most out of their situations – we want to help your accentuate yourself and accentuate your teams.