Your Next Steps: Bridging what was with what will be

 Apr 11, 2017 1:00 PM

Once a year, through most of Canada, there is a magical week. It is that moment when we realize we are almost finished with the winter thaw and there is evidence that a full and lasting spring is arriving. It doesn’t happen at the same time in each region – but it does eventually come to every corner of the country.

This week is southern Ontario’s winter thaw. In recent days we’ve moved from snow to spring glow. We are not yet firmly confident that spring has sprung, but we know that we are in the final days of winter.

This time of year always generates articles and discussions focused on rejuvenation.  The focus on the promise of the new season inspires us to reinvent, reinvigorate and resuscitate our careers. Indeed, we see a surge of new clients starting programs that focus on career iteration at this time of year.

But moving too quickly to focusing on spring misses an opportunity for a different type of career learning. I was reminded recently to reconsider those opportunities presented by this window between seasons in fresh ways.

While we can't wait for the coming spring, there is something special about this particular “in between” moment in time. There is value in considering what it means to be in the midst of the winter thaw: Rather than jumping immediately to new opportunities that lie ahead, the winter thaw allows us to reflect upon what has been beautiful about the season just coming to an end.

Winter thaw allows us to watch as parts of the cold winter melt away. In career terms, it is a reminder that there are many aspects of our careers that we can appreciate and then move away from as we move forward. The thaw is not instant, crocuses currently poke through remaining snowy lawns in a way that makes both the flower and the snow more beautiful. Our transition does not have to be in one step. It can be gradual. We can find ways to have what is working now coexist with what we want to have come next.


Retaining and Engaging Top Performers with Career Management

 Feb 7, 2017 1:00 PM

Originally published on Actionable Books website on January 30, 2017.

It’s 8:30 pm. There’s a list of customers who need to be called back, the new product line is about to ship, and you need to decide to either sign a lease, or let that new office space go. Just then, you learn that a key employee has given notice, and will be leaving at the end of next week. As the business owner, you wonder how to find more time to get everything done. You love talking with customers and regret not getting to their calls earlier. The new products look great, and you forgot to thank the design and production team for their hard work. Leases and legal agreements aren’t your forte, but you have good advisors around you. But the employee who has quit takes your breath away. How could you have caught this earlier? Is it too late? Why didn’t they come talk to you? Why does this keep happening? You care deeply for your staff. Exhausted, you head home. Tomorrow is another day and you have a family waiting for dinner.

Running a small business requires a diverse set of skills: product development, customer management, operations, financial analysis, marketing, etc. In large organizations, there are departments staffed with specialists, but in small- and medium-sized businesses who employ 90.3% of Canada’s private sector workforce, business owners oversee almost every function.

In the course of my research, 88% of business owners indicated that people-related issues kept them up at night. Yet, few small businesses have dedicated HR staff—if they do have HR support, they are focused on issues related to recruitment, compliance and performance management. They are fighting fires and keeping the company on-side of regulations, but they often aren’t fostering an engaging workplace. In a study commissioned by CERIC (Canadian Education and Research Institute in Counselling) in 2014, the research also indicated a troubling gap: 71% of employers said they have responsibilities for employee career management, however, only 29% felt they were doing anything about it. Employers indicated that they lacked the time, knowledge and resources to be able to focus on this critical area.

Last summer, CERIC approached me to create a Playbook that would bridge the gap between awareness and action for busy business owners. I spoke with people across the country, and it became clear that few people are aware of the importance of career development and management in navigating today’s increasingly mobile and flexible workforce.

Career paths were introduced into companies in the 1970s. Since that time, despite being a manager’s mantra, employees have not truly been in control of their own careers. It is a shared responsibility. One that employees have become quite adept at navigating and where managers have lost ground.

In the late 2000s the balance between managers and employees began to shift. Intergenerational workforces, shifting demographics, increasing freelance labor, and other trends became part of every strategic planning discussion. Firms saw staff leave, some voluntary and some by request. Instead of joining competitor firms, there was an increase in the number of people starting or joining small businesses. Employees were taking more control over their own careers.

In small businesses, engaging in career-related conversations is considered risky—what if the employee asks for more money or upward mobility an organization that can’t accommodate that type of reward? Owners of small businesses often believe avoiding the conversation until the business grows is the safest strategy.

However, avoiding career related discussions is not smart. We are shifting from an era where technology was the dominant business disruptor to an era where technology and talent innovation together present new competitive opportunities. Career discussions are no longer a once a year activity. They happen in real-time, everyday either directly or indirectly as networks learn what it is like to work at your company and at others via social media and through friends. Business owners need tools to fit these important and weighty conversations into everyday activities.

Retain and Gain: Career Management for Small Business provides these tools. For any owner or manager worried about retaining a highly engaged workforce, developing a career management strategy is great place to start. It is an ongoing process that requires frequent conversations and reflection—but the investment will pay off.

Returning to work the next day, you review Retain and Gain and build a “career management itinerary” of activities to implement. Each activity provides an outline of steps and resources to use. First, you take ten minutes to reflect on how your involvement with staff has changed over time. In the early days, you had much more direct contact. Now that the business has grown, you’ve stepped back from some of the daily interaction. You realize it’s been months since your last casual check in with many of the staff, and promptly schedule ten minute windows in your calendar to have at least one “no agenda” conversation with each staff member over the next quarter. Next, you sit down with the employee who quit the day before, and learn that they likely would have stayed if they’d known there was opportunity to advance within your business. Armed with the knowledge that employees crave more information about how they fit within the future of the company, you schedule a one hour meeting with the management team to discuss implementing a Career Champion program to share career management and development resources with your team. At the end of the day, you know that there is still a lot of work to do, but you feel more confident knowing that you are back on track, providing your team of exceptional staff avenues to build their own careers while they help you build the business.

Retain and Gain: Career Management for Small Business is available as a free .pdf download at or in paperback and e-reader formats via and


What You Do Is Not Who You Are

 Dec 20, 2016 2:00 PM

When we meet people, the first piece of information we share is often tied to our career.

“Hi, I’m Lisa.” “Nice to meet you, Lisa. What do you do?”

This use of vocation to make sense of social order is very strong in Canada. Other countries have different pieces of information that they exchange to give shorthand cues about social position and status. They will share what village their family is from, or how many children they have, or how old they are.

But in Canada, career is king.

Even in our justice system, strong assumptions are made about who a person is based upon what it is that they do.

I can’t help but recall the experience of a few years ago when I was Juror #12 in a murder trial.

As the lawyers on both sides of the case began jury selection, I was surprised to see occupation quickly rise as a key factor in whether someone was challenged or accepted.

The lawyers had access to three pieces of information about those in the potential pool. They could see us, they knew what borough we lived in and they knew our occupation.

That's it.  The stakes were high and the lawyers made their choices based on what they believed to be true about business owners, teachers, analysts, priests, etc.  Never had I seen a more meaningful demonstration of the importance our society places on occupation.

As we spent days and weeks together, it was interesting to see our own preconceived notions about each other fall away. We, too, had made initial assumptions based on the three data points available.

With occupation and identity so closely tied together - it's no wonder people find the idea of changing jobs or careers overwhelming.  Who are we if we can no longer introduce ourselves as “Bob in IT” or “Sarah at XYZ Company?”

Here are two suggestions for how to see yourself and others as more than their current job titles:

Introduce yourself to people you meet using something other than your occupation or title. You can use where you born, the type of activities you enjoy, the types of problems you like solve, anything other than your job.

When you meet someone, ask them a question that is not tied to their current occupation. Open yourself up to the broad range of personalities and perspectives held by people who all share a common title.

There are many other experiences and factors that define who you are. Introducing yourself with your current job title ensures that dozens of times a week or are repeating something that one day may no longer be true. You are conditioning yourself to “be the job” – even if it is a job you don’t like or want anymore.

Career change doesn't have to be threatening to your identity or risky to your sense of self. You are much more than your job. Once you believe this, others will too.


Employment Myth Busting: the economics of an aging workforce

 Jan 8, 2014 2:00 PM

As the Founder of Challenge Factory, Canada’s leading career company for the 50+ workforce, I am often asked if I feel any responsibility towards youth in this country who struggle to find decent work, i.e. “Isn’t irresponsible to focus on retaining 50+ workers in the workforce when there are so many recent graduates that need jobs?”

My response is always the same. Of course I’m concerned about young people struggling to find jobs, but that is not related to the over 55 employment issue because jobs are NOT a zero sum game.   Quite the opposite; increasing employment for one population increases employment for all.  Our aging workforce is not the cause of youth unemployment simply because both trends are occurring at the same time. We have two distinct workforce issues happening simultaneously, each needing their own analysis and solution.

Matt Sedensky, a fellow at the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, shared the frustration economists feel over the lack of understanding of this issue in a recent article:

“Having older people active and productive actually benefits all age groups, (economists) say, and spurs the creation of more jobs. [Economists] Munnell and Wu analyzed Current Population Survey data to test for any changes in employment among those under 55 when those 55 and older worked in greater numbers. They found no evidence younger workers were losing work and in fact found the opposite: Greater employment reduced unemployment and yielded higher wages."

The belief that there are a limited number of jobs in the economy and, therefore, one group’s employment level is at the expense of another’s is called the “lump of labour” fallacy and has been described, explained and demonstrated in more than a century of research and economic theory. One population does not get in, or stay in, the workforce at the expense of another. It was not true for immigrant workers, it was not true for women and it is not true for older workers. In a February 2012 article in the Economist, OECD country data was shared demonstrating that countries with higher older worker employment had higher youth employment.   

Note that the average employment rates of youth and the 55+ cohorts rise and fall together. Study after study presents data that demonstrates this economic principle. Yet it has never been accepted by the general public.

So let’s look at the myth of older workers taking employment opportunities from the young. 


Data analytics drive business strategy

Over the last few decades, analytics has become the backbone of many corporate functions. Logistics, operations, IT, marketing and customer service now all rely on analytics when creating strategies and measuring business results. HR and workforce planning is well behind the curve in coming to the data-driven table.  Lamentably, in human resources practice, facts, data and analysis are still often overruled by common wisdom under the assumption that such cold and clinical approaches don’t apply as much to people as they do to production lines or enterprise systems.

At the beginning of the Internet Revolution, it was hard to predict how new technology would affect business. Similarly, we are entering the era of a Talent Revolution and it is hard to predict the future of labour or how the workforce of the future will be structured.  However, in an era of uncertainty, data is king. Rejecting economic wisdom due to a single experience in one company or basing decisions purely on “common sense” may be the difference between success and failure, between those who innovate through this revolution and those that disappear.

Recommendation 1: Know your numbers and test intuition with logic

Every leadership development session emphasizes the importance of knowing your numbers and using facts to drive decisions.

So let’s apply it here.  The data and logic just don’t support the notion that older workers take jobs from the young. For that to be true, there would have to be a limited number of jobs to be had in the economy, which we know isn’t the case. It also implies that somehow keeping qualified and productive workers idle and supported by younger workers allows others to pick up the slack while still keeping the economy strong.

Organizations should use data to identify how the workforce is a critical growth engine. If the assumption that delayed retirement will hinder new graduate success is false at the macro level, what is the reality within your organization? What other faulty assumptions are at the heart of your enterprise workforce planning strategy? 

Leading the economy with a rear view mirror

If leaders base their workforce strategy on perceptions that are no longer valid, I’d argue they are fixing the wrong problems.  Many technological, social and economic factors have caused a shift in the lifecycle of our careers. New talent patterns include career development well into our 70s with various flexible paths to take. Programs that solve problems using talent wisdom from the one-career-one-company era of the 1960s, no matter how well executed, aren’t addressing today’s need to increase productivity, innovation and competitiveness.

Over the last five years, several sectors have put significant emphasis on new graduate recruitment. But at the same time, there are massive concerns about the impact of the impending wave of retirements. The insurance industry has a program to hire young graduates that has been very successful and the sector is a healthy employer of new talent. Yet, they still worry about the loss of experience, judgement and corporate memory with masses getting set to retire.  As highlighted in Sedensky’s article, younger workers simply cannot be assumed to replace retiring workers. The need for seasoned workers and new talent resources have both increased.

Recommendation 2: Fix the Broken Talent Escalators™

Companies have Broken Talent Escalators™ that assume once you hit a certain age and have ridden the escalator, you will step off at the top and everyone will move up. In reality, most organizations don’t work this way anymore and employees want a less linear approach to their career – at any age.  We need realistic views that recognize that working life expectancy is increasing, career paths will extend well beyond the traditional age of retirement and workers will change direction, if not careers, several times in their working life.

Challenge Factory: the aging workforce “Snopes”

Just like the economists in Sedensky’s article, I’m astonished that after 150 years, the myth of jobs as a zero sum game has not been conclusively dispelled.   We need to grasp this essential and foundational concept if we are to create effective talent strategies for the technology age. is a popular website that debunks urban legends and I think it’s time to sic them on this particular misunderstanding. The notion that older workers remain in the workforce at the expense of younger workers is way past due to be  debunked.  Challenge Factory is passionate about helping Canadian organizations implement talent solutions that are fact-based and that drive innovation.  We’re not advocating for the participation of older experienced workers at the expense of youth, but ultimately for the benefit of all, including youth.

Challenge Factory challenges old career thinking bringing practical business experience to complex workforce issues. We focus on helping companies capitalize on the aging workforce and help Boomers launch Legacy Careers®.

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