Career Turning Points—Dumb Luck, Daily Grind, or Positioning?

Careers evolve in countless ways. When we look back, we can usually identify the turning points, pivotal moments, and even epiphanies that have jolted our careers, hopefully, forward. 

My last post about “small bangs” (pivotal moments) that create career momentum prompted a terrific comment from professional journalist and blogger, Vickie Elmer. She wrote:

When I write a business leader’s profile, I sometimes ask about their “crucial turning points,” another term for pivotal moments. They always have great stories to share. I wonder how often we recognize them as they are happening and how often they just seem like another task or another game? How do we recognize them and make the most of them, especially when they are surprises? I’d love to hear more from you on this topic.

I believe the answers reveal a great deal about the way we look at things.

Tune in. 

Pivotal moments become turning points. If we can’t recognize a pivotal moment, we won’t turn.

We each get lots of them, so if we fail to recognize them all, we’ll likely get another chance or bump into a friend who clues us in.

We increase our chances of recognizing pivotal moments when we’re reasonably clear about what we want from our careers.

It’s easy for us to glibly say: “I want a job that I love with good pay and an opportunity to get promoted.” Vagaries don’t cut it.

You need to get laser-focused on what you’re looking for. Then you can let some pivotal moments come to you and others you can shop for.

Zero in: Write down what you want from your career. Read it every day to imbed in your mind what it is that you’re after. Then watch for pivotal moment opportunities.

Here’s what I wanted from my corporate career and what drove my choices: The opportunity to influence decision-making no matter what my title or what department I worked in. I was not interested in climbing the corporate ladder. I just wanted to do meaningful work with outcomes that mattered.

Now pay attention to what’s going on around you.

The signs 

Once you know what you’re after, you’ll be better able to detect opportunities that could become your turning points like:

Dumb luck: Some pivotal moments are surprises like being tapped at the last minute to lead a meeting of movers and shakers (increased visibility), bumping into an important client at a community meeting (relationship building), or reading an article in the paper that tips you off about a job opportunity (advantage).

Daily grind: The work you do day after day can become an eventual career turning point like management’s recognition of your technical or leadership expertise, your ability to bring assignments to closure, or your talent for seeing the big picture, all of which gives you a leg up for a next move.

Positioning: You can attract turning points by seizing opportunities to increase your level of engagement like volunteering for assignments out of your comfort zone, letting your aspirations be known to your boss or mentor, and demonstrating a willingness to take on challenges, particularly those others avoid.

Fear not. 

Many turning point opportunities are missed because we’re loath to act out of fear of failure, lack of self-confidence, low commit to our goals, and naiveté.

  • If you’re vague about your career desires, you’ll miss the pivotal moments.
  • If you don’t believe that those moments are in your future, you’ll miss them again.
  • If you discount the fact that careers are part luck and part talent, pivotal moments will likely be lost.

Yes, turning points are easier to identify after they’ve materialized and elusive before. That’s the “hindsight is 20/20” thing.

However, the clearer you are about where you want your career to go, the more likely that you’ll spot and then seize on those pivotal moments, using them smartly.

Photo from h.koppdelaney via Flickr

How Careers Build from a “Small Bang” | Vital Pivotal Moments

Business is focused on ends—results, outcomes, the bottom line, and competitive advantage. We are too. 

For us, salary, raises, perks, and promotions are standard measures of how our careers are going. 

Ends always follow beginnings somewhere back in time. Today’s results can be the product of multiple starting-point events that affected us and others. 

The “small bang”   

Pivotal moments create the small bang. Without our knowing it, we will come face-to-face with choices that represent turning points. The right choices mean smooth sailing. The wrong ones make for a rough ride or dead ends. 

Pivotal moments are often sudden and somewhat mysterious. They may come from: 

  • Something you hear that sticks with you
  • Someone you meet who opens a path
  • An act you complete with surprising results, approval, or insight
  • An event that unfolds around you, giving you a sense of cause 

Each moment feels like a small bang in your awareness, a sudden awakening that gets your attention. They are starting points that ultimately lead you to the ends, hopefully, that you want. 

Periscopes up! 

Pivotal moments are missed unless you’re watching for them. The more distracted you are by the noise and activity around you, the more likely you are to let those small bangs to fade into the ether. 

Pivotal moments pop up in all situations: 

Libya: The first rebel action (pivotal moment) in Libya ultimately led to liberation (result) from 42 years of tyranny under Col. Qaddafi. His recent death (pivotal moment) committed the Libyans to now “work hard on democracy so their kids can take it for granted?” (result).  (This quote is from CBS Sunday Morning, October 23, 2011.) 

Tim Tebow: A standout college quarterback, the much-hyped Tebow, now a rookie, pro quarterback for the Denver Broncos, is considered by many as having questionable capabilities. On October 23, after a come-from-behind fourth quarter and then overtime (pivotal moments), Tebow got a win (result.) If his career takes off, this game will likely be considered a major turning point.

Business Owner’s Widow: After years of back-office work in her husband’s water drilling business, Patricia became a widow and heir to the company. Instead of selling, as most expected, she took the reins (pivotal moment), dealt tough personnel issues, weathered the recession, made hard business decisions, and kept the business profitable (result).

Struggling Manager: Paul took over a dysfunctional department. Lacking the necessary management skills, he found himself in a quagmire. His boss threatened to fire him if things didn’t turn around. He decided to get some coaching help (pivotal moment) from me that enabled him to resolve the issue, putting him back in management’s good graces (result). 

I’ve had my share of pivotal moments too, many of which have led to unexpected career opportunities: 

A phone call: After weeks of vet visits for my ailing dog, I got a call from my veterinarian frantically asking me if I could help him with a staff problem since he knew I was a corporate manager. I said I would (pivotal moment) and it led to the start of my consulting practice (result).

A chance outing:  While at an expo for horse enthusiast’s, a friend and I met a vendor selling equine art. We asked each other about doing the same and the answer was “yes” (pivotal moment). It led to a business venture that lasted for a decade (result).

A presentation: As a fledging project leader, I was required to deliver a ground-breaking proposal to executive management (pivotal moment). The success of the presentation and the project boosted my professional credibility, becoming the foundation for my career growth (result). 

Take stock. 

Your pivotal moments are the stepping-stones on your Yellow Brick Road. They are the markers, the clues, and the turning-point moments that propel you forward or, unfortunately, sometimes backward. 

We all need to pay attention to the “small bangs” that come our way that signal opportunity, change, and/or insights. It’s often the little things that create the momentum that propels our careers. Keep your antennae up, okay? 

Photo from Katri Niemi via Flickr

Outfoxing a Case of “The Nerves” | Handling Pivotal Moments

I admit it! I get nervous every time I’m in a work situation where I could fall on my face. It doesn’t matter how high or low the stakes, how often I’ve successfully met the same challenge, or how prepared I am. This has been my plight for decades. 

I simply dread the possibility, no matter how remote, of disappointing the expectations of people counting on me to do well for them. That includes myself! 

I wish I could tell you that I’ve found a magic cure, but I haven’t. I’ve just found a couple ways to deflect my nervousness long enough to get the job done. 

Put things in perspective 

Lots of pivotal situations put our nerves on edge: 

  • Meetings with the boss
  • Closing a big sale
  • Making a speech
  • Requesting project approval
  • Defending a controversial position 

Even though there’s always something at stake, we shouldn’t make each situation bigger than it really is by thinking: 

  • My professional brand and reputation are on the line
  • My credibility and the confidence of others are at risk
  • The future of this project and my career depend on this moment
  • My future leadership opportunities are riding on how I do now

This is so self-defeating. Yes, our performance counts. But rarely does one situation cast us in bronze. Instead of making a pivotal situation ”too hot,” we should be like Goldilocks and make it “just right.” 

It’s a huge mistake to focus on the outcome instead of the moment. I know this is hard to do. When we feel competitive, we want to win, get applause, and increase our value.  But that cranks up the nerves. 

Instead we should see events differently, perhaps more for what they are: 

  • First steps or next steps in an effort to move work along
  • Opportunities to engage professionally with individuals or groups
  • A stage to bring out the best in others or promote a new idea
  • A chance to see how it feels to be in a challenging situation  

When we make pivotal occasions about us, it’s pure ego. That’s why our nerves go nuts. Instead, if we focus on the work and the people it will serve, we can get outside of ourselves and into the needs of others. When we approach key moments as opportunities to give, our generosity of spirit can help quiet those nerves. 

Get over it 

I don’t think there is any permanent fix for “the nerves:” I suspect that some of us are just wired that way. But we can outfox them. 

Start by thinking about your pre-event routine. Nothing turns me inside out more than unexpected disruption on the “big day.” So I make sure I have: 

  • Plenty of time beforehand to get my “game face” on
  • Confirmed the logistics
  • Double-checked my materials or notes
  • Spoken with other colleagues participating

We also need to give ourselves the same pep talk that we’d give to a coworker in the same situation. Tell yourself and really believe truisms like:

  • You’re the best person for this task and everyone knows it
  • We all know how much you care about this work and it shows
  • There are so many people who have your back on this effort
  • You’ve been in this situation tons of times with great success
  • Make it fun for yourself 

I have work friends who remind me of these things every time I waiver, and it still works. 

Be fair to yourself 

Positive self-talk is central to our health and our success. When our nerves begin to stalk us, we need positive messages to send them back into the shadows. Our nervousness can take all the fun out of exciting opportunities. We aren’t treating ourselves fairly when we get in our own way. 

I count on my business fitness to help me keep my nerves in check. I know that will work for you too! 

What tricks to you have to overcome nervousness? Please help!