The New Year is always a good time to reflect on your career: where you’ve been, where you’re heading, and where you’d like to go. It’s also the traditional time for people like me — industry analysts, pundits and consultants — to tell you what hot skills you’ll need to develop to advance your career in the next year. Of course, if developing your career were really that simple, every reader would be the CEO of a company by now.
In reality, simple advice like this is not as universally helpful as we would like to think. Focusing on hot skills may be useful for some, but for many it’s a complete diversion because the paths that people follow through IT careers are remarkably varied. Some pass easily from technical roles to management and back. Some oscillate between employment and contracting. Some even follow the traditional path of staying with one organization and climbing the corporate ladder.
But there is one thing that everyone can benefit from, regardless of what path you choose to follow, and that you can realistically accomplish given the day-to-day demands of work and life. Just take five minutes each week to reach out to someone from your past. Everyone can find five minutes a week — five minutes that would otherwise go to looking at your smartphone, waiting for people to arrive at a meeting, drinking your morning coffee or eating lunch at your desk.
What you do with those five minutes each week is to reconnect. It might be with someone with whom you worked, went to school or set up play dates for your children. All you have to do is think of someone and then call, leave a voice mail, drop an email or even send a physical postcard.
Don’t worry. It won’t be a big commitment, and it won’t take over your life. The people you reach out to are just as busy as you are and don’t have hours to talk on the phone. But those five minutes a week could do more for your career than you can possibly imagine.
Why? Because opportunities are the fundamental building blocks of careers — opportunities for new jobs, contracts or even volunteer work. You can talk in the abstract about building your career all you want, but if no one wants to hire you to do whatever you decide your next step should be, then you’re not translating your intentions into reality.
And where do opportunities come from? Mostly from people who know you. It may have been 15 years since you have spoken to each other, but if the other person remembers you fondly and your work respectfully, she will likely be happy to tell you about opportunities that she’s aware of.
Don’t expect her to do so right away. Don’t call and ask for referrals.
Just check in, person to person. For example, this past week I’ve been upgrading my home audio equipment. It made me think of a guy I worked with 20 years ago who was obsessed with stereo gear. I’ll probably just write a note saying that I was thinking of him and wondering how he is doing. That’s it.
Your greatest career advancement resource is not your résumé. It’s the people who know you. And they will bring opportunities to you if they feel good about you and you are top of mind for them when opportunities cross their path.
Paul Glen is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.