June 15, 2011

Change Your Work Habits: Cross-Train or Become an Expert

Are you the go-to-work-and-get-your-job-done type? If you’re inclined to keep your head down until lunch, then eat at your desk and return to your duties, I’m advising a reform in your habits. These days you simply cannot afford to "stick to your knitting" as they used to say, lest someone decides that knitting is no longer needed.

One common piece of advice urges you to become indispensable by doing a lot of things. Other advice tells you to become an expert in a key area. To both approaches I say "bah, humbug." Only in our dreams do the hardest workers get rewarded by getting to keep their jobs. In real life it’s much more arbitrary than that, and bosses make decisions using an abacus none of the rest of us ever see.

Even so, I don’t think the advice is bad; just na├»ve. I’d like to suggest that the reason for learning to do a lot of things, or for becoming a subject matter expert is to boost your own career, whether that be in this company or elsewhere. In other words, do it for yourself, not for your job. Because you don’t have control over what happens in a specific workplace, while you do have control over the skills and knowledge you build.

Which brings us back to your daily work habits. Anyone who spends their workday burrowing into their task list is likely missing an opportunity to:

1. Strengthen relationships (important for later networking)

2. Develop their own expertise (important for raising one’s professional profile) or

3. Broaden skills across disciplines (essential for career-changers after a layoff).

In other words, by trying to get all of your work done each day, at the expense of larger career management, you are opening yourself to more difficulties should you get laid off. And let’s face it: Have you ever finished everything on the to-do list by day’s end? No? Then allow yourself to delay one more item while setting aside 15 or 20 minutes each day for these other issues. So, for example, if you’re in a marketing job now, deepen your expertise by learning social media, but also broaden your knowledge by sitting with the accounting team to learn how the funds are tracked for your department. Eventually your broader and deeper knowledge will be helpful to your employer, but the main thing is that it will help you.

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