Responsible Careers - Want Better Answers? Change Your Questions!

Responsible careers are growing.  These careers focus on getting business done better in terms of social equity and environmental sustainability.  As emerging professionals or established professionals contemplating a career switch, you might be seeking the career that will enable you to bring your values and skills to work for a decent salary.  You have heard the old saying 'it's not what you know, it's who you know' so you have done your best to network and get career advice from current or new contacts.  However, thus far, none of that has been helpful in helping you identify the types of careers that would be a best fit for you.  What else can you do?

One of the first things I would recommend is for you to revisit how you ask your questions and to whom you ask your questions.  Lucky you, there is lots of help out there for you to learn how to formulate questions to get the information you need more easily and quickly.  One of the best methods I have come across in my career has been developed by Dr. Marilee Adams, author of 'Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 10 Powerful Tolls for Life and Work'.  Dr. Adams also founded the Inquiry Institute and has been helping emerging and established leaders increase their productivity and career advancement through her 'question thinking' approach.  This approach has been successfully used by business leaders at Fortune 100 companies, as well as by students and emerging professionals from a variety of backgrounds.  Dr. Adams is currently facilitating a conversation about how teachers and educators in the US can use her 'Questions Thinking' method to reinvent K-12 education in the US.  For more information about upcoming programs and discussions, see the Inquiry Institute website.

Let's take an example of how Dr. Adams approach can help you with your responsible career questions:  Imagine you are an MBA candidate in your last semester of business school, and you know you want to leverage your business toolbox to help people in developing countries.  You meet a new contact at a Net Impact Networking Night on campus and you ask her:  'I am interested in international development, do you know anyone who works in international development?'  Classic case of a question that is too broad for the good of this MBA candidate.  Maybe the new contact knows nobody in international development.  Or the new contact knows over 50 people who have had some international development experience as professionals or volunteers.  Based on how the question is formulated through, the new contact will be hard pressed to share relevant contacts with this student.  What could the student have done instead?  Let's revisit his questions through some of the tools offered by Dr. Adams' 'Question Thinking' method:

  • Question Thinking Insight #1 - Adopt a learning mindset -  Consider your question from the observer's perspective.  Would you be able to address it?  The broader the question, the less you will be able to address it.  Instead, start thinking about very specific and concrete preferences.  For example: 'I have been inspired by the progress made in maternal health through the MDGs, and would love to contribute to this cause in developing countries, preferably in South Africa or in Sierra Leone, do you know any one that has experience in this field or in these countries that I could contact'?  Chances are that the person might have a contact in maternal health, or a contact who worked in one of the countries you mentioned, or who works in prochoice movement for the poor in the US.  No matter the first contacts you receive they will bring you closer and closer to contacts that will have all the characteristics you are seeking.  By starting with a very specific and concrete aim, you will jog the memory of people you talk to in a much more productive manner, and this will lead you to better and better contacts (as well as to learn about career opportunities that you might not have considered otherwise).
  • Question Thinking Insight #2 - Question assumptions - When making career decisions, we can all suffer from the consequences of making assumptions based on false or incomplete information.  For example, we hear all the time that working for good means working paycheck to paycheck.  However, in international development as in other occupations, salary will depend on the occupation you choose, the skills it requires, the size of the organization, and the location where you work.  When looking at careers, be sure to ground your assumptions in facts that you gather through research (and not through what one person tells you about a career).  Look at salary reports for the organization you are interested in on, or using relocation converters so that you can see what the cost of living will be in your target city before making a decision on whether a career will (or not) be a viable option given your financial obligations.
  • Question Thinking Insight #3 - Keep your own mindset in check - It's easier to fade into inertia than to keep a disciplined approach to your responsible career search.  The more you find out about other career options, the more you might be scared to switch careers because of the assumptions you might be making in terms of how that career change will negatively impact your salary, your reputation as a knowledgeable contributor, and most importantly your relationships with your loved ones.  For example, you might assume that your mom is going to have a nervous breakdown if you share with her that you want to pursue a career in maternal health in Africa.  But if you come to her with a clear plan on how you will do so, which salary ranges are associated with these opportunities, and who you have been in touch to make this plan a reality, she might be more amenable to support you in the next stage of your career development.  Making sure to ask yourself about what you are trying to avoid and what you are afraid of will tremendously help you design and implement strategies that will lead you to overcome these assumptions and move towards a career that successfully blends financial return with social impact and environmental responsibility.

Overall, Dr. Adams' Question Thinking method will help you adopt a learner mindset, questions assumptions and emerge as the committed and grit-filled professional that you will need to be to get business done better!

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