Good for you if you can code Java, negotiate in Mandarin, decode a complex balance sheet or construct a global supply chain. As valuable as those skills may be, however, there’s one that may be even more important these days: Agility.
Miller’s organization, Business Talent Group, helps connect companies with “supertemps” — skilled professionals who work on a contract basis, mostly because they want to. And juggling a portfolio of projects obviously requires more agility than working as a permanent, full-time staffer. Still, there’s ample evidence that the corporate lifer is an endangered species and that fortune favors those who move around.
The typical 50-year-old worker has held 11.7 different jobs, for example. Today’s younger workers may end up even more mobile, since they’re not committing to one employer for as long as older generations did. Companies eager to reduce overhead seem willing to oblige them. The heroes of the modern business world are serial entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Richard Branson, not long-serving CEOs such as … can you name any?
Tech companies and other trendy, fast-growing firms often bemoan a “war for talent” that gives software developers, engineers and other highly sought professionals the leverage to work on terms they wish. Agility comes easily for people able to command top pay and perks. It’s harder to be agile if you have to cope with middling pay, subpar assignments or an unenlightened employer.
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The challenge for many workers is establishing a professional identity—a “personal brand,” if you’ll excuse the cliché—that’s independent of their employer. “The onus is on the individual to own their own career path,” Miller says. That means carefully selecting work–whether a temporary assignment or full-time job–that fulfills a broader career goal. Looking for problems to solve in the key parts of a business is a good way to start.
Employers increasingly value such soft skills, which can be hard to describe and often have to be demonstrated. Economist Martin Baily of the Brookings Institution has identified “conceptualization” — the ability to see how the elements of an abstract whole fit together — as a vital skill that can help trigger breakthrough insights. We previously wrote about conceptualizers, who often have techncial skills, but also tend to generate innovations by studying cross-sections of business and society and coming up with new ideas–such as a mobile app that allows ordinary people to become taxi drivers (Uber) or a global web site devoted to local craftspeople selling their wares (Etsy). And personable individuals able to make emotional connections and speak plain English in a technical environment always have an edge.
How to be agile
Being selective about the kind of work you do can sometimes leave gaps between paid assignments. Sometimes you might even have to leave a job before you have another one lined up, since staying in one position or one company for too long can breed complacency. Agile professionals prepare for income gaps by living below their means and keeping funds on hand for dry patches. Managing overlapping projects or assignments is an antidote, for those adept at multitasking.
Enjoying a variety of challenging assignments means you have to convince employers to hire you for great jobs. Start by rethinking your resume. While it’s important to have a chronological list of your career milestones, you also need something that will intrigue employers and get them excited about hiring you. “You’ve got to tell a story,” says Miller. “You want to say, I’m somebody who knows how to open and deal with new channels. Show a succession of accomplishments as opposed to just a chronological list.”
If it sounds daunting, the good news is the web offers an expansive set of tools for turning a resume into a multimedia extravaganza. LinkedIn (LNKD) and Facebook (FB) allow workers to add personality to their profiles. Some job applicants create YouTube videos showcasing their talents. And of course anybody can develop a personal website these days. Using it to highlight standout samples of your work can set you apart from the masses still mailing around a formulaic resume.
Agility matters even for people who don’t want to jump from job from job. “Twenty years ago, you’d go to a company and they’d tell you your [career] route,” Miller says. “Today, it’s on you.” Like it or not, you are your own boss—and you better do a bang-up job.