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How to Keep Your Career on Track

No matter what industry you look at, job security is an outdated concept. To survive in these turbulent times, you have to be self-reliant. You have to monitor your own career health to make sure you stay employable, no matter what happens to your employer.

This might sound intimidating or complicated, but it's really not. A lot of it is about making a good impression. Monitoring your career and projecting a professional image involve many of the same skills you use to make friends, impress your teachers and get along with classmates.

"Everyone has a responsibility to 'put their best foot forward' in life and to set out on a path to secure their happiness and well-being," says Victoria Adams. She's a career and business consultant.

"To be competent, fulfilled and successful at home, in the workplace and in the community at large means having a positive internal, as well as external, image of you and valuing the positive side of others," says Adams. "When all is said and done, it's up to you to create a positive first and lasting impression!"

Think about people you have known who project a professional image

How do you create a good impression? As Adams suggests, much of it is about focusing on the positive in yourself and in others. It's amazing how much of a self-fulfilling prophecy a positive expectation can be! If you think good things about yourself, you will start to live according to those good things.

A big part of keeping your career on track and making a good impression with others involves being perceptive and finding good role models.

"Think of people you've met in your life who have impressed you," suggests Adams.

Adams suggests asking yourself the following questions about people who've impressed you:

  • What made them stand out from others you have known?
  • How did you feel in their company?
  • How did they greet, speak and interact with you and others?
  • What attitudes and beliefs did they have that made an impression on you?
  • How did they convey warmth and interest in you and others using their body language?

Try thinking of two or three people who have impressed you in the past with their professional image. Perhaps you can think of a teacher you once had or a person you saw on TV. Answer the above questions for that person and see if you can think of ways to emulate them.

Assess how well you are projecting a professional image

It might sound as if projecting a professional image is all about turning in to someone you're not. To some extent, it's true that a certain amount of conforming is required in most work environments. Purple hair might not be accepted at the bank, for example.

However, within certain limits, there is a lot of room for self-expression in the workplace. And different work environments have different expectations, so if you're attached to your purple hair (other than by the roots), then you'll want to factor that in to your career choices.

"Take the time to explore and know yourself, determine what you want, how and where you wish to present your needs to the world, and who can be of assistance to you in reaching your goals," says Adams. "There is no 'magic bullet' or 'one size fits all.'"

It can be a daunting challenge at times to 'fit in' with others in order to be accepted. It's sort of like trying on new clothes to see if they enhance our looks or detract from them, or if they send out the wrong message (like donning a muscle shirt for a meeting with your banker to request a personal loan to purchase a computer).

"Image is important, but it should be consistent with who we are. Otherwise we will only be playing a role and, sooner or later, may become resentful if the social mask we wear hides our true nature," says Adams. "So make sure that the image you have of yourself and what you project to others reflects your positive values and attitudes towards life."

Devise a personal strategy for keeping your career on track

Keeping your career on track involves not just looking the part, but also making sure your efforts are taking you where you want to go. This is where your self-knowledge and research skills come together to give you the information you need to direct your career.

"The important thing is to have a 'big picture' view of the economy and industry that you wish to work in, or in which you are currently employed," says Adams. She suggests trying to answer the following questions:

  • Are companies merging (which could mean fewer competitors in the marketplace and an increasing competition for jobs), or are jobs moving offshore to take advantage of lower labor or production costs?
  • What assets and resources can you bring to the table?
  • What knowledge do you have about the business/industry that is valuable to an employer? What contacts or potential business opportunities do you see with minimal investment on the part of an employer?
  • Can you offer some new perspectives and different ways of approaching issues that would be valued by an employer?
  • What new technology coming down the pike could have an impact on the way your employer does business?
  • Are you prepared to learn new skills to catch the wave?

At this stage in your career you might not be able to answer many (or any) of the above questions. But they are great questions to keep in the back of your mind as you enter the working world and begin to forge your own path.

As you can probably guess by now, there are no final answers when it comes to keeping your career on track. With a positive attitude, an inquisitive mind and a willingness to adjust to expectations about performance and appearance, you'll be well on your way to career success.

"The important thing to remember is not to become too attached to your role or job such that your identity becomes defined by it," says Adams. "You may perform a variety of roles in your life, and the best way to navigate the changing workplace is to keep your eyes and ears open, be flexible in adapting to change. Yet, at the same time, have a strong circle of support among family, friends and outside activities.

"They will all play a pivotal role in assisting you through a transition period, as will your own attitude towards meeting challenges in your life," Adams says. "Learn your lessons during adversity so you won't have to repeat them again. And remember, focus on finding people, places and situations that respect your values and talents, bring out the best in you, and contribute to truly making your life worth living."

The bottom line: look to positive role models to get an idea of how to project a professional image. Write down specific details about people who have impressed you, such as the way they speak and dress, and think of ways you can adopt some of those habits. Also, monitor your performance at work, and make sure your work goals and professional image reflect the real you.

With a bit of creativity, perceptiveness and flexibility, you can move ahead in your career as you stay true to yourself.

"You are unique, as is your path in life and your goals," Adams says. "But don't forget the fact that others are also unique and seeking their own pot of gold at the end of their rainbow. Rest assured, there are more than enough rainbows and treasures to go around for everyone!"