Are you an expert? Do you define your career (even your self-esteem) in terms of experience, know-how or skill? If so, there are growing reasons to pay fresh attention to your identity in the professional marketplace.
The pandemic and its after-effects have fast-forwarded seven trends that, to be fair, already existed before 2020. Taken together, we can expect the future of professional life to be very different to the past.
The pandemic (and associated remote working) has unlocked geographical opportunities for many people… but also geographical competition. Customers and employers have been forced to accept that many functions can now be performed remotely. Once this resistance is overcome, it’s a short step from there to realise that they can recruit from any corner of the world. Sure, this can spell opportunity, but it’s now a more crowded marketplace in just about every domain of skill.
Implication: you need a niche or specialism (preferably both) in order to distinguish yourself. Building a professional identity based on knowledge, expertise or skill is no longer enough. You need to stand out from the crowd.
2: Getting information
For decades (even centuries) when people had a question or a problem, they reached for someone like you, or attended a learning event. One of the historic changes wrought by the Digital Age is that they now reach for a search engine, usually on the phones. This change has been fast-forwarded since the pandemic and has massive impact on any market which is about information. If you are a trainer, consultant, strategist, problem-solver, support specialist, call-handler—or in any role that involves giving information to others—then this has significant implications for your business / career.
Implication: consider repackaging your information-based career in terms of an approach to achieving tangible goals. Your professional identity needs to be based on useful insights, not just information. The value of your services lies in the context in which those insights are used, not in the content of the information you provide.
3: Oversupply in advisory / coaching professions
Ironically, all of the above coincides with unprecedented numbers of people moving into the advisory professions: often in the hope of working remotely and hence designing for themselves a cosy, stress-free lifestyle. Earlier than ever in their working lives, people want to escape those noisy battlegrounds that involve heavy lifting, deadlines and all that hard work of execution. There are now more people offering strategy than budgeting for it, more people coaching than willing to be coached, more people advising that taking responsibility for actually doing stuff. Empowering others to “do” is a lot more attractive than the mucky maelstrom of “doing”.
Implication: build your identity in terms of a tailored approach to specific problems, rather than your persona as coach, consultant or advisor. Gather evidence for this approach, whether you are involved or not. Your identity lies in the specific successes of your clients, not in characteristics of you. Listening to your clients is more important than talking about yourself.
4: How credibility and trust is established
There is a parallel development changing how business relationships are formed. In the past, personal meetings played a big part in an intuitive decision about whether we trusted someone or not. More and more, we now find ourselves working with people whom we have never met in person. This means we are now building trust in other ways: for example, paying special attention to details such as whether they are on time for a meeting, their tone of voice, or whether their social media betrays pure self-interest. Ironically perhaps, the virtual world is putting fresh emphasis on authenticity, as well as results.
Implication: re-design your own trust-building system and practices, adapted for the current marketplace. In particular, avoid long-winded rambling communication. If credibility and trust is already part of your company values, now it should be part of the way you build your business relationships. If it is not, then you might have a problem adapting to the new context.
5: How clients budget for your services
Since the pandemic, many businesses have been forced to be nimble, to adapt. Many organisations have dramatically restructured their operations and ways of working. In most cases, this means they are not making longterm commitments: neither to employees nor to suppliers. A lot of retainer business has simply disappeared. Getting even a quarterly commitment can be a challenge.
Implication: be ready to be in business-development mode all the time. You cannot afford to just disappear into one client / employer / organisation and revisit your career in a year from now. Contract life-cycles are shorter, and you need to be constantly working on the next renewal, not just a few weeks before renewal date.
6: What the first meeting will be like
Despite all, you somehow manage to get a first meeting with a premium client or prospective employer. Today, this meeting is likely to be shorter than ever and almost invariably it will be virtual. Unlike in the past, they may already know quite a lot about you, so it will be unwise to waste precious minutes talking through your education or career to date. How do you now let them know who you are?
Implication: re-learn how to present yourself online, particularly in first meetings. Even if you are a veteran presenter in-person, virtual meetings are a new format and require a fresh dynamic.
7: Personal fulfillment
Whether you lead others or not, you are a leader in your own career or business. The pandemic has caused many people to revise their life’s priorities. Achieving success or promotion, even financial growth, is not always enough for more and more people. They want to BE somebody in their own lives, not just DO a role. This has real implications for how they think about their career, how they prepare for their next review and how they plan for the future.
Implication: a professional identity is not just about what you do (or a superficial “personal brand”) it’s about WHO you are in the professional space. It’s about how you are useful and and how this expresses your self-worth. If you lead others, this dimension is a vital dimension of authentic leadership today.
So does all this mean you need to abandon your dream of a virtual consulting or coaching career, working on your terms with happy clients or employers? Not at all. What is does mean however is that this consulting or coaching career is not sufficient as a professional identity! You need to be known for something more specific, that relates directly to the evolving needs of the marketplace – not just your modus operandi.
The good news is that these marketplace needs are evolving all the time, faster than ever. Whether you are at the start, middle or end of your working life, almost certainly there are people and organisations out there that need your talents. You may simply not have met them yet.
So how can you help them to find you? This is real self-worth in action. A professional identity is an exciting adventure in finding fresh value and meaning in what we do. A changing world brings new needs and hence new opportunities.