Career Transition

A Lesson From AT&T
That Will Keep Your Career Alive

rotary phone

In November 2014 Ivy Exec was selected by EY as a 2014 Winning Women Winner, and I was invited to attend EY’s Strategic Growth Forum, which is best known for its Annual Entrepreneur of the Year gala.

A keynote speaker at the conference was the CEO of AT&T — Randall L. Stephenson. Although I disagree with some of his views relates to Internet traffic rules, he provided some interesting points on the boldness of strategy needed to stay in business over the long haul. Some of the same principles apply to professionals who wish to build long and successful careers.

He spoke about being bold enough to re-invent things that cannibalize existing, profitable products and services. AT&T has had to make some strategic bets to manage the demise of a technological era – bets that assured their ability to survive and thrive long term, despite cannibalizing the profitability of their core businesses.

For example, remember the rotary phone? The rotary dial was invented in 1896 by A.E. Keith and John and Charles Erickson. Today the rotary phone’s market share has slipped to low single digits and is still dropping. Now broadband internet is having the same impact on market share for cellular phones, and AT&T is once again reacting to the change, before someone else does a better job.

At the core of AT&T’s obsolescence survival story is that being first to make product trade-offs, improves a company’s chance of survival. The market, quickly displaces those who don’t rapidly adopt innovation. Think Blackberry. This process of managed obsolescence applies to your career and your future, as well.

Careers are not a straight line path anymore. You have to anticipate some zig and some zag. You also have to anticipate you’ll need to make tough tradeoffs from time to time keep your job and get ahead.

What kind of trade-offs? Maybe you have to take a step back in title and responsibility to leap frog to more responsibility down the road. Or accept a lateral move to groom yourself for rapid acceleration a position or two in the future. Sometimes you even need to step back and re-engineer (think refresh) your skill set. I’d urge you to be proactive — before you see the handwriting on the wall.

  1. Take stock of where you are. Ask trusted colleagues (and even those colleagues on the fringe of your people comfort zone) what they think you’re good at. What do they think your growth opportunities are? Where do they see you fitting in the organization? In the work landscape in general? Accept the input, good and bad. Inventory your skills and experiences. Identify the gaps and the holes.
  2. Commit to yourself that you will let go of the “OLD” professional you and open yourself up to the “NEW.” You need to find the mental resolve to move forward and embrace change in your professional life. This is the first step in the journey.
  3. Make your manager your ally. Have a frank discussion about your long term career goals. Ask your manager’s help in reaching your goals – even if it means a shift to a new department, or extra assignments you feel less than equipped to handle, or taking some of the drudge out of your manager’s day to day, or even taking time off to allow yourself some mental and emotional space.
  4. Proactively set out to build your skill set. Your goal is to strategically fill in skills gaps. Have management skills? Check! Have product expertise? Check! Have P&L responsibility? Check! Have international experience? No….then go get it – whatever “IT” is. And if you can’t get “IT” from your job, then seek to do it outside of the workplace through classes, volunteer work, study-cations.
  5. Be open to opportunities. Don’t let that inside voice tell you “you can’t” or “it won’t work.” First and foremost, you need to be a believer in yourself and your capacity to evolve and stay in the game in one way or another. For the naysayers? Ignore them. They are not worth your time or mental energy.

A New Year is always a good time for self reflection and finding the resolve to make changes. Don’t become a vintage curiosity in the workplace, a holdover from another era like the rotary phone.

About the Author

Elena Bajic is the founder and CEO of Ivy Exec, a selective online career network for top performers.