Career Development - Julie Winkle Giulioni

If there’s any truth to the adage, “The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire,” we must be cultivating the greatest careers imaginable — because, let’s face it, it’s pretty hot out there. Massive reductions in the workforce in some sectors and impossible-to-fill positions in others. Customer demands outstripping supply chain capacity for some organizations while others are seeking new markets. Shrinking tenure and growing employee expectations. The heat has been turned up in all corners of the workplace, creating a hot mess for many.

And yet, when it comes to creating robust careers, the magic is in that mess. Skills and abilities might be honed within one’s comfort zone, but significant leaps happen when we step into the discomfort zone. That’s where the hottest challenges and richest development opportunities reside.

How can we use the “fire” within today’s workplace to forge stronger careers — for ourselves and others? Consider these approaches to turn the heat into opportunities for career development … without getting burned.

Play With Fire

Want to immediately distinguish yourself in the workplace? Play with fire and volunteer to address a significant, broadly recognized problem. Raising your hand for such a challenge telegraphs your commitment and confidence. It garners visibility and an expanded network — sometimes at the highest levels. But volunteering to do it is just the first step; then you must deliver results.

That’s what Lanya, a learning and development (L&D) manager did. After two stalled departmental efforts to replace an aging learning management system (LMS), Lanya threw herself into the fire and offered to lead a cross-functional team to evaluate options and implement the change. Anticipating the toughest challenge of her career — a make-it or break-it experience — Lanya began crafting her project plan. But wanting to extract optimal professional development from the experience, she crafted an equally robust development plan. Layna isolated the skills that would ready her for her next role. She identified the people with whom she wanted to learn and with whom she needed to build relationships — and drafted her team accordingly. She reflected upon the leadership brand and reputation she wanted to cultivate and built-in opportunities to apply and spotlight those qualities and characteristics. In the end, she was right. It was the toughest assignment of her career — and one that garnered positive attention and the skills she was looking for.

Stare Into the Fire

Most of us don’t need to actively seek out challenges in today’s workplace; they find us, presenting themselves organically in day-to-day work. Reduced budgets. Fewer resources. Higher expectations. Shorter timeframes. The heat is already turned up each day we walk through the door — or portal — to work. But many employees are so busy fighting fires that they miss the opportunity to use those challenges for growth.

“Staring into the fire” refers to the simple act of reflection. Every day, an endless stream of lessons washes over us, going unnoticed and unused because we don’t take the time to just think. Imagine the power of closing each workday by asking questions like “What were today’s challenges trying to teach me?” or “What skills/abilities might have made today easier or more successful?”

Staring into the fire and reflecting upon questions like these is likely the most powerful and budget-neutral way to grow — in five minutes each day.

Let the Fire Inspire

And finally, there’s a lot to be learned from evolving challenges and what’s hot in the workplace. Rather than sweating the future, forward-focused employees and leaders are becoming keen observers of the business landscape. They’re looking around the corner, allowing current events to help them understand, predict and prepare for what’s to come. They anticipate that it’s only going to get hotter in the years ahead. They’re allowing the fire to inspire personal change as they build the readiness, relationships, resilience and reputation for future success.

The workplace is hot, hot, hot. And those who learn to leverage the fire for development will most certainly forge careers of steel.