What do you do? 'who do you work for' or 'what line of work are you in?' These are pretty common questions at most meet and greet or networking type events. They are as much a question about job as they are around identity - where do you fit into the world, how is it similar to what I do and my world, who do we know that might be the same – trying to find commonality and connection.
Initially my response to a question like this was something along the lines of 'oh, I work in HR at x company', or 'I am the learning and development manager at x company’ – hoping they would be more interested in the company than they would be about my job role. More recently though over the past few years I've narrowed it down to ‘I’m a people development specialist. I build learning, talent and engagement frameworks in a business to help prepare the business for the future. I am also a career and leadership coach and run a small private practice.’ Of course I tweak it depending on my audience and whilst still not perfect (and possibly too wordy) it more clearly defines what I do.
I have spent the past few months wondering what my next step would be or look like with my own career. I set up Infocus Consulting last year and whilst this business is my side hustle it's certainly not enough to give up my paying day job and live off. Also, I do love being part of an organisation and team and I would miss that working purely on my own. So this mix of permanent part-time employee, with a little bit on the side works for me at the moment. There is a great NZ Herald article here for those considering a little something on the side.
Since having kids I haven't really pushed myself for that next BIG role and feel I have sat at the same level for a number of years now. All the while gaining different industry experiences, learning new skills, developing my knowledge toolbox, building networks and working on interesting (most of the time) projects. I was driving to work a few weeks ago reflecting on this. I often feel like I’m in 2nd gear in the way of the amount of grunt I can give, and part of me wants to shift to 3rd and possibly 4th gear again, but another part of me is happy where I am as this gives me balance/ blend (see my last blog on this one).
It’s not that I want to climb the corporate ladder, but rather that I know I have more to do to make a difference to both an organisation and to individuals in my community. Perhaps that’s the real reason behind setting up Infocus, so that I can do just this and move into 3rd gear without stepping out of my comfort zone too much….
Besides, careers don’t seem to be ladders anymore, but more like jungle gyms - you go up a little, across the monkey bars, then down, hang upside down for a bit, down then up and across again. Claudia Batten, a very successful start-up entrepreneur kiwi lass now living in North America calls this the squiggly line of life.
To share an example of a squiggly line here’s a peek at my own career story – I left 7th form and headed to uni to do a BA, doing papers like psychology, anthropology etc. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my career and went to uni because my friends were going, which is similar to many young students I've recently worked with. Without any real goal I was rudderless and dropped out of uni after the first year and started working in sales roles. At the age of 22 I had been working a few years and completed some business studies, but I knew there was more for me in life and I left New Zealand to 'find myself'. I started off in America as a camp councillor at a summer camp, and then headed to London to look for work.
For my first 6 months I worked in a large ad agency as a TV planner buyer, but I knew again deep down this was not my calling. Then after a year or so of temp admin contracts I landed a position in a training admin role at an accounting firm which I really enjoyed. Assisting others to develop and learn was fun and felt like a proactive part of HR which can often be seen as a reactive part of a business. One of my good friends also worked in HR and she was a good sounding board for me around what the potential could be in HR and learning. Deep down I knew in my gut this was my life direction. So at the age of 25 I headed back to NZ for 6mths to complete some uni papers and started on my journey to learning about people management and development. Once I finished my studies I headed back on a plane to London to be with Ross (now my husband) and landed my first HR role at Eurostar (god bless Jayne Lewis for hiring me!)
10 years on from initially leaving NZ I had a Master’s degree in HR, numerous people development tools and qualifications under my belt and had a great development role at Eurostar. My time, focus and energy was about building my knowledge, experience, job level and salary package. I was in 4th gear and loving it! I had found my calling, my purpose and I was in my sweet spot. Thanks to the support, coaching and mentorship I received from some awesome people leaders such as Angus Jenkins and Dan Dobson-Smith who even now, whilst on the other side of world, are still mental supports for me. I often ask myself 'what would Angus do’ or ‘what would Dan say’, or ‘how would he be in this moment'.
Then I started having babies and my focus and priorities changed. Once upon a time I had the mental and physical capacity to work 60 hour weeks including a 90 minute commute each way to work, loving my job each day. Now I want part-time and flexible hours to allow for my family. The roles I have taken involve compromise. I have chosen to compromise salary, title, level, role type and responsibility for having a family and spending time with my family. This has been my 2nd gear for 7 years and I've been really comfortable squiggling about in this space.
Don't get me wrong, 2nd gear doesn't necessarily mean cruising, or slow and easy because god knows managing a household, a family and a job isn't easy. Also the 3 roles I have taken since Eurostar have been decent roles both in the UK and back here in NZ, doing interesting and rewarding work with some great people. But I haven’t really been pushing myself with progressing my career upwards or forwards. I have had friends and colleagues zoom past me in the fast lane as they move forward in their 3rd and 4th gears with new big jobs, promotions and salary increases, and I've just been comfortable watching them go, giving them a little toot and supportive congratulatory wave as they make their way forward on their personal journey. I do have more squiggling to do in my career journey and at some point I'll move to 3rd again when the right opportunity presents itself but for now I'm content motoring along in my lane in 2nd doing work I love.
So, how about you? What’s your story? Are you working in an area you love? Is it in line with your personal values and what's important to you? Consider what gear are you in, how long you have been in it, and is it time for a change? What's your destination, what lane are you in, what lane do you want to be in, and what gear do you need to be in to get there?
Finally, if you have chosen to be full time at home with the kids, looking after the house and family, this relates to you too. What’s your squiggly line look like? Do you have an interesting response to the ‘what do you do’ question? And how do you feel when you respond? Proud… or embarrassed?
I challenge you to practice and work on your reply to the ‘what do you do’? question with something that expresses what you do rather than just a title or role you play, a response you feel proud to repeat over and over again.