We often think of drugs and alcohol when we hear the word “addiction” as they are mainstays of both the news and cultural discussions, but if we are honest, there are many other things that have a hold on us, from food to money to cultural expectations and so on.
Therefore, it should not be surprising that when it comes to our careers we face several other forms of “addiction” (as loosely used here, of course) that often collectively make up what is called the “rat race.”
Now, I’ve written about the rat race before and about perceptions vs. realities when it comes to our careers…all of which can touch a nerve (you know, that first sign of addiction…denial). But we haven’t built our firms ITtechExec and NoddlePlace feeding career addictions; instead we’ve built them guiding people through what we call the job market “zoo” or corporate “goo” (both veiled references to that rat race thing again), not to add to the unhealthy stress that comes with any addiction but to help professionals maneuver through with sober eyes wide open. (After all, the term “rat race” is a misnomer because it suggests there is an actual race that can be “won”.)
And one area that seems to trip a lot of us up (yes “us” because I played this game for a while too) is in the area of credentials.
We live in a world that claims to love credentials. And not surprisingly, there are institutions after institutions that will feed our…”love”.
If there’s anything that can get you ahead in the rat race, we’re told as soon as we enter school, it’s having the right credentials.
Now, certainly, it’s hard to argue that credentials don’t matter. They can and do open doors…at least sometimes and for some people. Without them, the road can be a lot harder. When it comes to undergraduate degrees, for instance, it would be hard to deny that they don’t add a great deal of value in today’s corporate and government marketplace (how much value, though, is difficult to assess when very few seem to be asking how much is too much to pay for one or how much debt is too much debt for young people to overcome with current starting salaries).
Many people now believe Masters degrees and advanced certifications are also “necessary,” thereby driving the cost of these credentials sky high.
As a career strategist, however, I can’t help but advise a bit of a “detox” program and proceeding with some caution. Here’s why:
1. These institutions charging so much for these credentials don’t monitor their results well and show little accountability. Their ROI is often low, and education centers are rarely questioned on this. Their career centers are notoriously lacking; yet people go into thousands and thousands of debt and don’t demand accountability from these institutions because the mantra about credentials has been drilled into us.
2. Few people have a good strategy behind them. We often get them because we’re told we need them. Period. So we get them. Period. Then we wait for them to do something for us. Period. The credential or “piece of paper” is really only the beginning. What is the marketing or branding strategy that you have behind it? How much more are you willing to invest to make the credential really work for you?
3. There are many more exceptions than people realize. I can’t tell you how many times clients come to me and tell me that their lack of a particular credential is what is holding them back because someone(s) told them that. Then while they are figuring out what to do about that, the company goes and hires someone else without the same credential for various reasons, such as politics, a good referral, etc. In other words, the red flag that was waived at my client was quickly overlooked for another. So it begs the question, “was the lack of that credential really the obstacle for my client?”
4. Society likes to use words like “always” and “never” and “must” and “can’t” to build perceptions that aren’t “always” true. I remember in one of my first jobs out of college being told the following:
- You will “never” be promoted in the summer (when the company was busiest and reluctant to shift personnel around).
- You “can’t” reach a director level before you’re 30.
- You “must” have an MBA to make it into corporate leadership.
Thankfully, I had a spouse supporting me who, like the rebel she is, laughed at these commandments and actually said, “who says?” to each one. Sure enough, I was promoted at least 3 times in the summer, reached director just before my 30th b-day, and made it into corporate leadership without my MBA. (I did, however, later go and get the MBA. I was still a credential addict, after all!) [I should note too that this was all with a company that had me start out at the very bottom of the rung doing a job that you certainly didn’t need an undergraduate degree to do. I took it because it was in my field of study and, well, no one else wanted me.]
The point here isn’t that the statements above weren’t true necessarily. The point is that they weren’t absolutes. When the company needed someone to fill in, and it determined I was the person to do it, it overlooked its own restrictions to make it happen, including my “lack” of MBA credential.
I have since gone on to obtain many other credentials, from a Six Sigma Black Belt to a Master-level resume certification to an “expert” social media strategist status. I now have so many initials that I could put after my name it is dizzying.
Their ultimate value has been education, more so than opportunity. And none of them opened any doors without a great deal of investment on my part in branding and strategy.
(Now I recognize that in some fields you have to have to certain licenses and credentials as regulated by law, etc., but for most of us, that is not true.)
Today, I use them mostly for marketing purposes…bragging rights. And some people may actually be impressed…although rarely does it make the difference in whether someone works with me or not…certainly not as much difference as a good referral or a strategic introduction does.
So do I regret getting them? No, because as I mentioned they each have provided some great education that I have found ways to incorporate into my career…and they are accomplishments I worked hard for.
But listen. Credentials have a place and a purpose. They can be a great starting point, and they can be something to enhance your level of education. But believing that they are the secret to career progress is a dangerous and expensive addiction (after all there’s always one you don’t have or haven’t maintained lately). Instead try investing in strategic positioning to earn introductions that lead to high-value referrals. Do that first. Then add in more credentials.
You might discover that you don’t need as many as you thought you did.
But of course, that might also mean overcoming your dependence on job boards and on listening to HR recruiting tactics…but I digress…that’s another addiction for another day!