Inc yourself a new career

Desk jockeys and cubicle dwellers yearning to go free, start your own companies now.

Yes. While you’re still employed.

In fact, ramping up while you’re still staff gives you the advantage of choosing a niche that has long-term potential, instead of just running from a tedious or odious job. Minda Zetlin outlined my Career Lattice strategy for managing this transition in her January post at

The strategy pivots on mining your remaining staff days to understand how you can leverage your industry knowledge and skills in a new direction that will be more apt to support some of your other priorities, such as flexibility or working remotely.

The key dynamic is one that you’ll keep using once you are on your own: tracking trends and interpreting them as market opportunities. If you aren’t sure how to do that, you’d best figure it out while you are still employed. And if you do know how to do that, now’s the time to start creating and connecting the dots that convert trends to  clients.


And if you live within 150 miles of Chicago, consider signing up for the “Lattice from Staff  to Entrepreneurship” workshop I’ll be leading later this year at Chicago’s Women’s Business Development Center. 

Go, ERG!

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.

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!

Twenty-Something Career Wisdom

Baby boomers, listen up: the things that annoy you about how Millennials manage their careers are exactly what you need to emulate.

They don’t stick around. They get training on their own terms — inside work or outside — and use it to cherrypick the best new jobs — yeah, before you even hear about them. They’re ok with cycling in and out of staff jobs, freelancing, and contract work. They align their careers where their values are — that’s right, they’ll work harder for less, if they believe in the cause.

Gee, this is sounding kinda of like the career aspirations that boomers had, oh, about 40 years ago when they  were the newest kids at work!

No less a luminary than CNN’s Ali Velshi has detected millennials’ propensity to lattice from the start. The best insight from his recent Money magazine article about how millennials are managing over as much as up:  “Focus on the experience, not on the job itself.”  You won’t be around for long, they figure, so why not make a run for a job that expands your skills in a totally new direction? Not a bad thought for a new year.

Why the Lattice, Now?

That’s one of the main questions that career coach and radio show host Bonnie Marcus had for me in a recent interview for her show Career GPS.

It’s a good question. Immersed as we all are in economic uncertainty, concerned about the stability of our companies and of our careers, it’s easy to overlook the sweeping realignment that is crystallized in the lattice.

Three long-term trends are aligning to replace career ladders with career lattices.

  • Baby boomers have to stay on the job longer, effectively blocking promotions for 40-somethings. Strategic lateral moves can equip valued middle managers with operational experience while they wait for promotions  to open up.
  • Boomers themselves are finding satisfaction in late-career lateral moves. Some progressive companies, like Time Warner Cable, create internal consulting or project-based positions for pre-retirees. That creates a channel for sluicing the boomers’ knowledge back into training, talent development, and information systems, while opening up operational slots for rising managers.
  • Millennials, observing the two trends outlined above, assume that their careers will be just as much over and up. And, that feels right to them, the first workforce generation steeped in social media. They already know the power of peer relationships; latticing gives them a career structure for the connections and opportunities they gather through social media.

The Lattice in The Ladders

It’s a collision of career metaphors!  Veteran business writer Robin Madell wrote a comprehensive outline of lattice strategies for– wait for it — striver career site The Ladders.

The story is a terrific primer for those near the top who are wondering if a developmental lateral move is worth the risk. I especially like the advice of carer coach Darcy Eikenberg. Here’s her take on creating your own promotion:

With the collapse of mid-management roles in many companies, an employee with 10 to 15 years of experience may suddenly find there’s no next level in sight—their leaders may be in the same age range with no plans to retire or leave any time soon. Eikenberg said that in cases where you can’t expect a promotion, it may be time to orchestrate your own with a few key strategies:

  • Identify the pain in your organization and how you are uniquely suited to help calm that pain from your current position.
  • Build a business plan for a new role, department, or service you might lead.
  • Communicate with key players in your organization to let your intentions be known.
  • Take your efforts as seriously as you would a new job search.


Tasty Careers

Here’s the best definition of lifelong learning I’ve heard so far: “At the end of the day, everyone goes home smarter.” That line was delivered by Tom Walter, CEO of Tasty Catering, a Chicago-area food catering company that was one of two companies honored by Workforce Chicago at a recent breakfast hosted by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Tasty tips:

  • Based on entrepreneur Jack Stack’s philosophy of sharing financial results and responsibilities with employees at all levels, Tasty employees are in charge of contributing to their slice of the bottom line. With everyone from delivery vehicle maintenance staff to executives searching for ways to grow revenue and contain costs, Tastey saw 2011’s sales increase 10% and profits rise 125%.
  • Employees learn how to read financial statements, too, so that Tasty can become “A business of businesspeople.”
  • One Tasty employee detected a market opportunity for corporate gift baskets and developed a business plan for a college class. She presented her concept to her bosses…and walked out with a $50,000 launch fund, sparking a new division. That’s more than frosting!

Friends Beat Bosses

What’s more important to career happiness and engagement on the job? (Engagement being HR-speak for ‘giving a darn.’ )

Productive and collegial relationships with co-workers. That’s according to the latest employee engagement research from the Society for Human Resource Management. The top factors for engagement are:

  • 79% – Relationships with co-workers
  • 75% –  Opportunities to use skills/abilities
  • 72% – Contributing to organization’s goals

And the factors bringing up the rear? “Career advancment” and “Career development.”

The definition of satisfaction on the job is realigning — sideways. It’s a latticed world. That’s how workers are already operating. How long before most organizations catch on?

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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