We are all WISE Women in Industry – a lattice career for all

WISE 2018 Woman in Industry Award finalist, Emma Taylor, talks about the benefits of a ‘lattice career’.

My name is Emma Taylor, and I have a ‘lattice’ career.

Before last year, I just thought I had a patchwork of roles, across three sectors and covering engineering/science/whatever. My 30-year working life has been shaped by what was available, and often influenced by factors such as caring responsibilities or limitations on location. I would look enviously at those who had those linear-ever-upwards career paths, otherwise known as a ‘ladder’ career. I thought I, and my work history, was second-best.

Last summer I became one of the Telegraph Top 50 Women Engineers, one of the “Returners and Transferrers”. Winning that award planted the seed of thought that perhaps my lattice (patchwork) career actually had some benefits, an idea further strengthened by becoming a WISE Woman in Industry finalist a few months later.

When Helen Wollaston, WISE CEO, asked me to write this article, we were both inspired by the idea of lattice careers, and also both surprised that they weren’t better understood. Perhaps I’d found by accident a road map, a toolkit, a source of inspiration that might help others navigate similar career challenges? Maybe promoting this approach could be a powerful enabler for increasing gender balance in STEM?

So, what’s the internet definition of a lattice career?

A lattice career pursues continued growth, development and organisational influence by creating and valuing career paths that move laterally, diagonally, down as well as up”…” Ladder careers have one direction for growth, development and status: up” (Forbes, 2011)

I like to put it more simply. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Once you let go of the idea that each move has to be more ‘senior’ than the previous one and look instead to pick out the good bits from wherever you are, those slightly-not-quite-right jobs then become sources of development opportunities.

But where to? Where is ‘moving forward’ for you? How to build your own lattice career?

In my experience, it starts with identifying you and your own identity. Not the imaginary you that you wish you were, but who you are right now, without any extra layers, “the person you can’t help but be”. It’s the traits and characteristics you have expressed in one form or another throughout your working life, as a professional, or as a volunteer, caregiver or other roles. Capture that purpose, and then use it as a filter to identify new prospects or evaluate new opportunities for their suitability for you.  You can read more about leadership purpose here (Harvard Business Review).

Top tip #1: Accept that a lattice career looks messy. My work history has most traditionally-careered people raising an eyebrow (or two).  But it makes sense to me, and, importantly, when I am in line with myself, I am a lot better at my job. See Emma’s LinkedIn profile.

Strengthen your new-found sense of identity by communicating it to others, online and in person. I started to understand the power of a career narrative when I started applying for awards. It’s highly recommended as a fast track approach to working out what it is you do best, capturing what you bring to the (work) party. Don’t wait for others to nominate you, just do it!

So that takes us up to the present day. But what about the future? There are techniques such as optioneering, SWOT and others such as skills gap analyses, all classical and well-tested approaches to mapping career directions. But I don’t think that’s enough for what is, in essence, a very personal and tailored route, creating a forward-looking career lattice map. The question? What would you like to do in the next 5-15-25 years?

Top tip #2: There are no limits on ideas. It’s just you and your imagination as you identify what you might want to do. Create a “mood board”, pinning up people and projects, cherry picking what appeals to you. Think of it like Pinterest where you can group together common themes and ideas, rather than implementing someone else’s sample career wholesale.

Then ask yourself the question “what would it take?”. Don’t allow your inner voice to filter things down through, take it all in with a spirit of adventure. It’s just you, your thoughts and a pen and paper. There are two reasons why: it strengthens your mind’s approach to the process, and it’s more fun this way. It’s important to write down the ideas – it develops a more flexible mindset.

When you’ve collected some information, just apply the 5 why’s e.g.

  • What would I like to do this?
  • Why does that matter to me?
  • Why is that important?
  • Why…

Iterate your reflections, then screen with friends and family (and trusted colleagues), preferably the same people who helped you pin down the person you are (see above for suggestions on how to identify your purpose). Look for areas of alignment.

Top tip #3: Maintain flexibility of outcome, keep a broad mind. Maybe you’ll only get to achieve 2 out of the 5 on your list? No worries, a lattice career is all about possibilities. Similarly, stay flexible on the order of when things might happen. Don’t look for the job labels, look for career experiences.

If you’re finding it hard to do this, you’re not alone. Change (of thinking, of employment) is difficult, it rarely feels comfortable. It can take 6-12 months to complete this initial mapping exercise, so a little and often is key. But it will make you see your current role in a new light, which makes it easier to get as much as possible from it whilst you think about your next move.

I think the most surprising and powerful outcome of this approach, which I’ve discovered by accident over the past few years, is that you can find yourself seeing opportunities in more places. Your brain quietly takes care of scanning the environment around you and matching it with you and your ideas. If an option pops into your head, don’t discount it, just write it down.

So, how to bring it together? What’s the catalyst? When’s the decision point? For some people it’s when they see a job role, others it’s when they are approached about an opportunity (internal or external). And, if there’s nothing coming to you, there’s no harm asking your network if they have any ideas or suggestions, using your reflections as a framework. Whatever the initiating event, have a think, look at your personal lattice, and see how it can fit, you and your circumstances.

Wherever you start, whatever options you consider, and whoever you talk to, enjoy the process of developing your own lattice career!

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