How to Lattice an Encore Career

Make a career and life switch to extend your satisfaction mainly, and your income, if you can, advises Marci Alboher in her upcoming book.

She’s one of many voices in a chorus urging baby boomers to shift down, not out, of the workforce.  It sounds like great advice – until you start peeling back the assumptions. Here are three fallacies about late-midlife career shifts and how to avoid them.

Money doesn’t really matter.  Maybe it doesn’t to hedge fund managers,  investors and others who have piled up a cushy nest egg that can insulate them from the economic realities of a new career. Here’s Alboher on  transitioning from being a lawyer to being a journalist – which took, by the way, a decade:  ”I earn only two-thirds of what I was making in my last law job. But the trade-offs are worth it.”

Ok, it’s worth it to her…because she can afford it. But most working Americans have endured eroded home equity, spells of un-or-under employment in their families, and paltry returns on their retirement funds. And, the longer they work, the more they will reap from Social Security when they finally start tapping it. So, yes, Marci, money does count.

Keep earnings consistent by shifting within your industry, not abandoning all your accumulated contacts and wisdom to pursue something completely new. Build on what you know, and it shouldn’t take you ten years to find a sweet spot where you can work for love and money.

  • Taking some courses will reposition you. If you concentrate on rebuilding only technical expertise, you will likely move yourself back to square one. By midlife, employers and clients assume that you bring wisdom, people skills, and get-it-done skills that actually supersede your technical skills. Instead of getting a certification in a particular skill, become conversant in the technical milieu and concentrate on project management and business skills.
  • Age discrimination is illegal and pervasive. You’re unlikely to persuade someone to overlook a number you consider irrelevant…which means that many boomers will become self-employed. Instead of concentrating on finding a new job, focus instead on doing the new job. That might mean traditional employment, but it also might mean contract work, short or long term.? If you keep landing contract work, you’re self-employed. Mission accomplished!

Lattice to a Higher IQ

Boost your intelligence through a lateral career assignment.

How’s that?

Learning itself makes you smarter, according to  Ken Bain, author of “What the Best College Students Do.”

The habit of expecting to learn, which leads to putting yourself in situations where you’ll be challenged, learn, and grow, actually rewires your brain to help you learn faster and better.

That’s why you feel ‘brain dead’ as you molder in the same job with the same responsibilities, and likely with the same results.

If your workplace is not open to a lateral move, construct one on your own time. Choose a skill — such as learning the underpinnings of a popular content management system — or a business experience — such as fundraising — you’d like to master. As you gain traction with this developmental self-assignment, you’ll not only act smarter. You’ll be smarter, too.

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Lattice = Happy At Work

American feel cruddy about their jobs.

And that’s not me talking: that’s from the latest Gallup Wellbeing Index, which reports that employees are in a continuing funk.

That’s not good for employers, because workers who don’t care about their jobs are a drag on productivity, not to mention morale.

Plenty of factors need to turn around to perk things up — big, big factors like economic growth. But there’s one thing that bosses can do right away: to get more things done, understand how important it is to workers to get things done.

Harvard business school prof Teresa Amabile operates in the world of everyday work dynamics. I’m a fan of her work because she unlocks big ideas from insights that resonate with all of us. Some of her recent research pivots on the point that productive people find satisfaction in the process of getting stuff done. Bosses who want greater productivity need to actively remove barriers to daily accomplishments. It’s not the flowery praise or the sugary doughnut that prompts top performers to buckle down and get stuff done: they are motivated by the satisfaction of actually seeing the stuff get done.

This insight can help managers who are looking for ways to ensure that lateral moves are meaningful and developmental. Lateral moves are still shaking off the outdated image that moving over is moving aside.

As you are framing a lateral move, consider: what will the person in this new position actually get done? How will this position fuel this person’s innate desire to be productive, and how will he measure his effectiveness? Lateral moves need to deliver their own rewards. Otherwise, your attempt to recast lateral  moves as growth will ring hollow.

Lattice as Scenic Route

An otherwise unremarkable career advice column makes a great point about a benefit of latticing: When you take lateral turns in related departments, you gain insights into how your organization works.  You not only make good connections, but you also see how the moving parts mesh.

I absorbed this lesson when I spent seven years writing for a magazine about debt collection. Not too glamorous, but I did learn a lot: about human nature, about how people soldier on in an unpopular career, and about how much of the organization’s mission breaks down  when people don’t pay their bills.

Sales don’t count unless customers pay.

Marketing doesn’t mean much unless it attracts customers who are willing to buy what you are selling.

Operations is falling down on the job when it delivers goods and services that are so damaged that customers can’t use them or won’t pay for them.

And if customer service isn’t serving, frustrated customers resort to refusing to pay their bill. Their calls might go to voice mail. Their emails might disappear into the ether. But if they don’t pay their bill, they get attention.

Of course, at that point, the collection staff is the only thing that stands between the complete loss of the customer (and all future sales from that customer, plus the defection of that customer to a competitor, which translates to lost market share). It all rolls downhill and lands in their laps.

They clean up the messes left by the rest of the company.

Some smart organizations requires up-and-comers to rotate through many departments, observing how the gears fit together. If they’re really smart, they have them spend a few days dealing with that most tiresome of all creatures, the public, by working the phones in the customer service center or in the collection department.

Adopt the same attitude for your lateral move. You’re seeing the same organization from a different perch.  How are the culture, terms, and approach different from your prior position?  What you see informs the job you have today — and the job you’ll land tomorrow.

How Do You Know How To Grow?

Latticing sounds great! How do I know which way to grow?

When you start to look around for career growth, rather than just up, a new world of options opens up. How do you narrow down the possibilities?

Here’s how to get a grip on your lattice.

First, don’t assume that the training your employer provides or encourages you to get is the best  strategic fit for your career growth.

The Accenture Skills Gap Study found that employees were most likely (52%) to have gained technical skills in the past five years. Lagging far behind were problem-solving skills (31%), analytical skills (26%) and managerial skills (21%). But guess what skills employers claim are in shortest supply? Yup: those know-it-when-they-see -it creative and problemsolving skills — the very ones that employers are least likely to pay for.

Scrutinize the skill sets and job descriptions of people who currently hold jobs you’d like to have. (LinkedIn and BranchOut are great sources for job-skills-peeping.)

Match up what they have that you lack.  What can you most likely get your employer to pay for? Technical skills, probably. You might have to gain creative, problemsolving and managerial skills by volunteering for leadership responsibilities on the job or in your off-hours.

Another way to tackle the where-to-start dilemma is to see how your situation compares to the norm. Leadership consulting firm PDI Ninth House recently tracked the strengths that men and women business leaders tended to have at various points in their careers. Both men and women senior leaders tend to be highly ranked on all skills.

But PDI found that middle management men are viewed as stronger in financial management and strategy; women are better at collaboration, trust, developing others, and customer needs.

Do your current strengths align with these gender norms? If so, you will need to explicitly pursue opportunities to backfill the skills usually considered a strength in the opposite gender.  As you do, build case studies that show your skills in action; your success stories will show how you demonstrate the skills used by current organizational leaders.

Help the Economy and Yourself: Quit!

Smart analysis by the Wall St. Journal points out one of the biggest barriers to job growth: people are reluctant to take a chance on a new position.

The article cites a Stanford /BLS survey that cites 80% of the reduction in hiring during the Great Recession to a complete stagnation in turnover — people were glued to their seats, and that stopped up the whole hiring system.

Don’t mistake lack of movement for loyalty. Over 50% of currently employed workers are actually passively looking for a job. They are trolling ads, checking in with colleagues and friends, and keeping an eye on professional activity through industry and career social networks. 

One great way to signal that you’re ready for a move: chat about a new skill you are applying in your current position. Got a project over the line through some creative negotiation? Teamed up with somebody new and learned some new techniques that make both your jobs easier? These are the kinds of anecdotes that catch the attention of headhunters and potential referrals….and that keep you growing even as you ponder your next move.

Do You Own Your Work?

Cultivate your ideas and keep developing fresh skills: that’s one of the key recommendations in The Career Lattice. But how do you know which of your ideas is yours, and which actually belongs to your employer?

It’s not as clear-cut as it seems, according to presenters at February 11’s Pen to Digital Press: DIY Publishing in the Digital Age, hosted by Lawyers for the Creative Arts.  (I spoke too, with the irrepressible Shari Stauch of Shark Marketing, which helps authors build their audiences.)

Tips from the conference:

  • You can’t copyright or trademark an idea.  You CAN copyright or trademark the specific expression of that idea. Thus: the idea of chocolate chip cookies? Uncopyrightable. My amazing chocolate chip cookie recipe with a Secret Ingredient? Copyrightable.  Just because it occurs to you doesn’t mean you own it.  But if you develop the expression of that idea on your own time, and you want to protect it, then publish it and register the copyright.
  • If you develop it at your day job, they own it. If you want to build your own portfolio of work, develop it on your own time and document it as such.

This is especially relevant if you are cultivating career skills through a side job or freelancing. Be sure to draw a bright, thick line between the material you produce for your day job employer, and that which you develop, produce and copyright on your own.

Steal This Paragraph to Show Your Skills

Cross-posted from our New Best Friends at, is this bit of wisdom on how to break through the competitive scrum to get the attention of a potential employer or client.

Show a Key Skill in Action

Here’s the magic key for freelancers and part timers who are pitching clients or applying for work: show a key skill in action, accomplishing a business result. Don’t just list your skills, and especially don’t just list your skills assuming that your work and credentials will speak for itself.

It won’t.

Pull together a couple of short case studies that show how your skills deliver business results. And segue into that by showing that you understand the types of business results that this potential client or employer needs to get.

Here’s an example:

“It’s likely that you would expect your new social media manager to increase awareness that directly translates to sales. I did just that for one of my freelance clients – a retailer that wanted to stand out at an upcoming community festival. Other retailers posted on Twitter and Facebook about their specials and hours. But I crafted a campaign that alternated special events for new and existing customers. That enabled the store staff to tailor their sales strategy accordingly, and enabled the store owner to see exactly which tactic was more profitable.”

If you want the job, show them how you’ll do it. 

– Joanne Cleaver, Director of Freelance Growth, Ebyline

Giggia recommends that you adapt the graf above for your cover letter. You’ve got my blessing — go ahead!


Why Career Reinvention is a Dead End

Two magazines on my coffee table insist on coaching me to career reinvention — even on the weekend.

The latest issue of Fortune tells its always-ambitious readers how to pull off the ultimate career makeover.

MORE,  geared for women of my generation (that’d be those 40 and up, and I’m not telling you how hard I have to squint see that threshold) loves to showcase ‘career reinventions’ that involve lawyers monetizing inner peace as yoga instructors and exhausted hedge fund manager channeling Gaia through organic farming.  Money, MORE likes to posit, shouldn’t get in the way of a good reinvention.

The overarching theme: you have to abandon who you were to become who you need to be to stay solvent — and to have a prayer of saving enough for retirement. Take the case of former trial lawyer and mystery novelist Paul Levine. His minor celebrity wasn’t sufficient to tide him over from print to Kindle. Now he’s coaching would-be authors in how to navigate the choppy waters of getting their books published electronically and sold through the likes of Amazon — the precise transition that he barely survived. “I didn’t have a grand plan,” Levine told Fortune. “I was fueled by fear and desperation.”

What a waste of energy, talent, and experience.

Reinvention is a false hope. As Levine’s own career illustrates, there’s no point in reinventing yourself from one dead end career to another.

Reinvention sounds great –  fresh start and all that. But it’s a reaction, not a plan.

What is a plan is the model of the career lattice — continual, incremental change. Always adding skills that complement those you already use every day; cycling into assignments that give you new experiences related to those you already handle every day; finding new uses for skills you’ve mastered.

Reinvention is reactive: it demands that a new opportunity exist before you make a wholesale jump from your old, dying career to a new career that may or may not have greater potential. Latticing positions you to prepare today for careers of tomorrow that aren’t quite invented yet. But through latticing, you can move into those careers as soon as they emerge.


In a recent webinar  on latticing I presented for Canadian Women In Communications, a participant asked how to detect good lateral opportunities within her company.   Her question is a common one;  opportunities can be opaque to rank-and-file workers, according to the most recent Accenture Skills Gap study.  While bosses presumably have a bird’s eye view of short and longer-term lateral assignments,  it’s frustrating to hear about them only after they are filled.

Here’s the silver bullet: the Employee Resource Group, or ERG.  “Affinity groups” took root about 15 years ago, mainly as a way for women and minorities to find each other in large organizations.  Smart companies realized that ERG’s were built-in focus groups. Smart employees realized that the horizontal nature of such groups meant that they had a great chance of meeting higher-ups with whom they already had something in common, as recently explained in the Wall St. Journal.

As I outline in The Career Lattice, ERG’s are a rich lode for self-promotion, especially if you need to cultivate skills that are outside your official job description.  Here’s how to aim the silver bullet that is an ERG:  look for new connections in adjacent functions or departments.  These are the folks with whom you will naturally intersect on a project at some point.  Use the ERG to get to know them before your work responsibilities collide – so you can be each other’s friends in lateral places.