We are constantly shifting jobs and even careers but how do we make sense of it all and communicate our stories to other people? To answer this, I turn to Pam Slim, who is a business coach and the author of the new book, Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together. She is previously the author of Escape from Cubicle Nation and you can read her advice by following her on Twitter @pamslim. In this brief interview, Slim talks about what a body of work is, how you can best weave your career story, how to piece together unrelated jobs, and more.
Dan Schawbel: When did you notice the trend of the body of work?
Pam Slim: After consulting inside large companies for ten years, then spending eight years helping people start companies, I began to notice that popular thinking divides the world of work firmly in two camps. Either you have a company career track, or you are an entrepreneur. Many people inside the startup world feel that working for themselves is the only way to be creative and free, often shunning people who choose to stay in corporate. And some corporate employees view the startup world as wild and volatile.
More important than work mode, in my opinion, is the body of work that you are creating throughout the course of your life. Is it meaningful? Does it solve problems that you care about solving? Does it use your strengths and follow your values? If this is the case, then you can move between and among many different work modes throughout the course of your life. By having many options open to you throughout the course of your career — corporate jobs, freelance opportunities, startups, academic positions — you will increase work options, and reduce the risk of unemployment.
Dan: How can you best connect different elements of your career and weave it together into a story?
Pam: You want to examine all the work you have done in your life (including paid and volunteer) and look for overarching themes. Have you been a lifelong instigator and innovator? Do you come into chaotic situations and create order and calm? Are you a go-getter with charisma and influence?
Finding themes in your work will allow you to identify core messages in your career story, which you can back with examples and case studies. When you are in a position to tell a story about your experience (like when you are going for tenure or a promotion or trying to get a new client), tailor your story to the needs of the audience.
Just like you would never mention every feature or benefit of your product in a sales call, you don’t have to include every part of your life or work or experience in your career story.
Dan: What if you have a few experiences that aren’t related or you have gaps in your resume? How do you piece them together?
Pam: Due to increased volatility in the market, more frequent job shifts and layoffs, gaps in resumes are becoming the norm. Yet they are still a concern for some HR departments and hiring managers.
To explain the gaps, find a strong way to describe what you did with your time when you weren’t working. Did you volunteer? Focus on your family? Start a business? Take time off to travel and explore? What did you learn from those experiences that made your work skills even stronger? Did managing uncertainty while traveling alone in Asia strengthen your ability to communicate cross-culturally? Did starting a business teach you business fundamentals that made you more aware of the importance of delivering value to your corporate customers?
Tell the story of your career, highlighting what you learned from each part (even the gaps), and relate those lessons to what would make you the perfect candidate for the job or opportunity in front of you.
Dan: How do you go about building your body of work at the office? Which projects should you latch onto?
Pam: You want to choose projects that will showcase your strengths, solve important organizational problems and contain true interest and meaning for you. I am a fan of shorter term projects that have high stake outcomes and strong organizational support. These will give you the chance to prove your skills, see a project through from beginning to end, and demonstrate your values and work ethic.
The more success you have in driving great results in your organization and solving problems, the more exposure you will receive, leading to expanded opportunities.
But never forget that these projects are part of your own body of work. So choose wisely, and make sure that the work is worth doing to you personally, regardless of the outcome.
Dan: Can you give an example of an employee who has been able to build a strong body of work and how it’s helped them?
Pam: Mike Bruny was an operations manager for Intel, and did lots of volunteering outside of work as an ambassador at tech conferences, helping participants connect with each other, with speakers and with sponsors. He also taught entrepreneurs how to network effectively. When Intel rolled out their new employee ambassador program, Mike was a natural fit, and has been a key part of their global effort to turn Intel employees into brand ambassadors. He has trust and credibility in his outside community, which makes it easy for him to share new Intel technology without hype or spin.