However carefully you’ve planned your career, professional life can be unpredictable. Sometimes unpredictability is a good thing – such as when great opportunities emerge out of the blue and you want to make the most of them. And it can be associated with adverse circumstances that affect your job; for example an organisational downsizing. Another example of circumstances that can be hard to predict is when professionals choose a career direction that turns out to be wrong for them.
Professional versatility helps you make the most of situations like these including, when necessary, enabling you to completely reinvent yourself in the workplace.
Even when their career is progressing according to plan, professionals still need to be versatile in order to move successfully to the next stage such as accepting an international assignment, transitioning into management or becoming a specialist when they have to date been a generalist. Versatility and the ability to, in part at least, reinvent yourself can be a valuable skill when a new CEO or other senior manager takes over.
Professional versatility is something everyone can work on as an integral part of their overall approach to professional development. Versatility in professional life involves:
- knowing and building on your core professional qualities;
- doing things at work that make you more versatile; and
- developing certain personal skills that enable versatility.
Core professional qualities and versatility
Just as athletes need a strong core physically, professionals need a strong core of qualities that together define who they are as a professional. These are the qualities they take with them, and build on, whatever their career trajectory. Core professional qualities stay with you including when your career takes an unexpected turn. They are enduring and transferrable; for example, commitment to high standards, ability to work under pressure and ability to relate to a wide range of personalities. They are a valuable anchor especially when professional life hits some turbulence.
To be clear about your professional core, start by listing the professional characteristics for which you are, or want to be, known. The following checklist is by no means exhaustive but is intended to help you get started:
- Lifelong learner
- Effective problem-solver
- Team player
- Independent thinker
- Respected leader
- Influential communicator
- Creative innovator
- Competent business analyst
- Productive networker
- Sought-after adviser
It’s important to remember that core professional qualities are different from, yet have a significant bearing on, specialist technical expertise. When you are clear on the constituents of your professional core, you are well-placed to keep them in mind and pay attention to developing them further in parallel with technical capability.
For example; a qualified vet, with several years of small animal practice behind him, came to realise that he wanted to move away from veterinary practice. He effected a successful transition into selling veterinary pharmaceuticals and subsequently progressed to a senior management role in that field. The rigour he applied to diagnosis and treatment in his earlier career, his capacity to relate to a very diverse range of people and his enthusiasm for technological advances all accompanied him as he reinvented himself at work.
Activities that increase professional versatility
There is much you can do at work to increase your professional versatility. Being on the lookout for opportunities to learn new skills, observing the ‘bigger picture’ of your working environment and knowing how to make yourself indispensable all help.
Putting your hand up to take on new, challenging responsibilities can be a great way to develop and demonstrate your versatility.
For example, a business analyst had noticed a succession of account managers attempting to improve the organisation’s relationship with a particularly difficult customer. It was a relatively small account and each had found they were too taken up with the demands of larger clients to resolve issues with this client once and for all. Seeing an opportunity to apply her strengths in problem-solving, negotiation and relationship-building to a new challenge, the business analyst volunteered to deal directly with this client. A successful outcome led to her becoming the go-to person for dealing with other seemingly intractable situations.
Many professionals have discovered opportunities to apply their versatility at times of significant organisational change such as when a new CEO or senior manager comes on board. And restructuring often opens up new possibilities for professionals who have worked on their versatility.
Observing the bigger picture
When you’re working hard to build your reputation as a professional and to fulfill current objectives at work it’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening beyond your immediate work environment. Yet your versatility as a professional depends on observing the ‘bigger picture’ around you – in your immediate workplace and in the broader working environment – so that you are ready to act in the interests of your career.
For example, a change of government from one political party to another and associated increases in funding for social services led to the opportunity a young psychologist had been hoping for – to move from part-time employment in a small private practice into a full-time role in community health. She was clear about her core professional qualities and had thought enough about their transferability to convince her new employer that she was sufficiently versatile to succeed in this new environment.
Changing customer expectations, the application of emerging technologies and shifting competitive forces all mean that organisations can’t afford to stand still. Making yourself indispensable is a way to demonstrate your versatility because indispensability is about remaining relevant when everything around you is changing.
For more about becoming indispensable see the Professionals Australia article ‘Are you Indispensable?’
It’s important to note that being indispensable as a versatile professional is very different from making sure the organisation is dependent on you and only you to perform certain tasks.
Filling skills gaps
Most people are resistant to being pigeonholed – personally and professionally. Yet when professionals establish their reputation is one relatively narrow field of work, the perception can easily form that their career advancement potential is limited. It pays to think about career advancement potential and to make sure that you address any skills gaps well ahead of applying for specific opportunities. For example; moving into management or taking on more responsibility in other ways will require you to demonstrate the versatility needed to make that move. The article ‘IT Experts’: How’s your Business Acumen?’ discusses the career development options for IT experts who also develop their business skills and is relevant for technical professionals in many other fields.
Skills that enable versatility
Professionals who have successfully transitioned their career know the value of particular personal qualities that have helped them do so – in particular, the ability to tolerate anxiety and the willingness to live with a degree of uncertainty.
The versatile professional knows that in order to try something new you have to be able to tolerate a degree of anxiety and even fear. They know that the way to deal with those emotions is to think about what they are fearful or anxious about, acknowledge it and, when relevant, do something constructive about it.
A capacity to live with a degree of uncertainty also helps you become more versatile at work. Familiar routines, applying well-honed skills and working with people you know all help you feel comfortable. But to engage in the activities suggested here that help you be more versatile, you need to be able to live with uncertainty – about whether you have the necessary knowledge and skill and about whether you will succeed.
Looking for more ideas?
For members with an interest in further reading about topics covered in this article, the following articles are available on the Professionals Australia website.
About the author
Dr Janet Fitzell, a director of FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (www.fourleaf.com.au), is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator, specialising in organisational and professional development.