21 September 2020

Notes from a CAUDIT webinar: Career Design in Uncertain Times

woman in a field looking at two different paths
Photo by Burst on Unsplash

Last week I attended a Council of Australasian University Directors of IT (CAUDIT) Leadership Series webinar focused on career planning. 

This topic would normally be covered in depth as part of the annual CAUDIT Leadership Institute. The CLI is on hold for 2020 and has been replaced with a series of free bite-size sessions like this one. This particular session had also changed in focus due to COVID-19 impacts on universities that mean that many university library and IT workers are now faced with unexpected career decision making.

The session was led by Jill Benn, the University Librarian, University of Western Australia and current Chair of the Council of Australian University Librarians, and Michael Cato, the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Bowdoin College in the US.

Jill and Michael introduced us to the work of the Stanford Life Design Lab, which “applies design thinking to tackling the wicked problems of life and vocational wayfinding”. Through various Designing Your Life courses and books (available via many public libraries), co-founders Bill Burnett and Dave Evans argue that we can all apply the processes and principles of design thinking to career planning in the same way we might apply them to the development of products and services.

The first step of this process is acceptance of the current state; you can only start from where you are! The CAUDIT session started with a reflective exercise in which we were asked to think about three things that have drained us in the past six months and three things that have energised us.

Some of the things that attendees had found difficult included missing social contact with workmates, lack of meaningful holiday time, unhelpful blurring between work/life with WFH, online meeting fatigue, worries about interstate and overseas family (especially elderly parents), and the personal emotional strain involved in supporting their teams during such difficult times.

But people also noted finding better work/life balance, including having more time for exercise, family, pets, home and garden, and fulfilling interests outside of work. Some had forged more meaningful connections with workmates and enjoyed having more insights into others’ personal lives. Jill and Michael spoke about some of the silver linings that have emerged for them in their leadership roles; Jill spoke about how gratifying it was to be able to act more quickly and decisively than usual, and Michael talked about the way his team became “almost addicted” to rolling out quick fixes and having very grateful staff and students as a result.

One of the tools from Designing Your Life is the Odyssey Plan. This is a reframe of the usual five-year-plan that focuses on brainstorming three different options and seeing your career more as a journey or adventure than a single pathway. In the CAUDIT workshop this timeline was reduced; we were asked to spend some time reflecting on our current idea of what the next 6-12 months may hold (baseline), what we might do if our Plan A fell through (backup), and what we would do if money was not a concern (dreaming).

This last part of the session was quite a confronting exercise, particularly as many participants were facing upcoming job losses at their organisations. However, some people commented that being asked to visualise what their Plan B might look like had reduced their fear. Michael had earlier noted the positive power of negative thinking, including an exercise from the Stoic school of philosophy that encourages people to deliberately consider the worst case scenario; by facing our worries head-on we might be more able to brainstorm other alternatives. Another interesting thing that emerged from this exercise was that people’s dreams often have very little to do with work!

Overall this was a really useful and thought-provoking session. I have always struggled with the idea of a five-year-plan and this approach seemed a lot more intuitive to me. Especially at the moment with so much personal and sector-wide change on the horizon, it seems logical to continue to have some broad ideas and plans, but also to recognise that there will be bumps and swerves and new signposts always appearing along the way. I am planning to follow up with reading the Designing Your Life book and completing some of the other exercises in it.