Chris Fontanella spent years studying theology and preparing for the ministry, having received his Bachelor of Arts degree in New Testament Studies from Oral Roberts University and his Master of Arts degree in Theological Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary.
However, a simple twist of fate caused him to change course, and today he is a staffing industry expert, founder of Encore Professionals Group, a professional services firm specializing in the identification and placement of accounting and finance candidates in temporary and full-time positions, and author of Jump-Start Your Career: Ten Tips to Get You Going, and Tune Up Your Career: Tips & Cautions for Peak Performance in the Workplace.
I talked with Chris about how to look at who you are as a person, how to take ownership of your career whether you are just starting out or eager to enhance your current position, and how to draft a plan for what you want to do for a living, set ambitious goals, and never minimize your uniqueness.
Peter Page: You say that any job that doesn’t allow you to be you is not the job for you. If the goal is to spend your working hours in a job that is fulfilling, how can someone go about building a framework to move forward, overcome challenges, and take ownership of their career path?
Chris Fontanella: Career ownership is the foundation of a noteworthy life of employment. Said another way, your career and its development are your responsibility. And your ultimate goal careerwise should be to find a job that is rewarding and fulfilling and allows you to be the best version of yourself, one that lets your individuality shine.
To move in this direction, I suggest thinking like archeologists, who always use maps. Archeologists first map out the territory they want to explore and then excavate. Likewise, the career-minded should start with a map made of sketch lines that consist of things like your education, experiences, interests, dreams, and desires, or whatever you deem important and want to invest your time doing. This, at least, offers a starting place, a general direction to find the career you hope to have.
As you begin to excavate, you may find you need to expand your area of exploration or reduce it to further hone in on what it is you seek. Archeologists know that first map sketches are never final sketches and that the best map makers use an eraser as much, if not more, than the pencil itself. In fact, to assist with map design and redesign, archeologists use theodolites—surveying instruments with a rotating telescope for measuring horizontal and vertical angles—to analyze and re-analyze landscapes. It allows them to see new angles and dimensions that escaped prior observation.
A commitment to continual review of your career topography eventually leads to finding the career you’ve always wanted. So, it’s a process that allows you to always move forward, overcome challenges you may encounter, and adapt whenever necessary.
Peter Page: It’s not uncommon to pursue one vocation only to scrap it for something else. Not everyone knows from an early age what they are meant to be or do for a living for the rest of their life. In fact, you changed your career path from preparing for ministry to becoming a staffing professional. How can someone figure out if a change in direction is needed?
Chris Fontanella: It’s not always easy to interpret a shifting landscape. Sometimes, however, the signals are relatively clear: the company you work for is downsizing or outsourcing jobs to another country because labor there costs less; there are rumors the company you work at is to be acquired; an announcement has been made that the division you work in has been sold to a company in another state and your job is being relocated; or the Great Recession or Covid happens; or inflation has changed company hiring requirements.
These, and other similar signals, are indications change is in the air, and you may need to adapt. Your future vocational outcomes are oftentimes contingent on whether you choose to respond to that change or not. The great thing about events like these—ones that are unexpected or unplanned—is that they have embedded within them moments of destiny. They hold the potential to push you into the very situation you were meant to be in.
Early in my career, I worked for a division of Bank of America. On a random Friday, the Chief Operating Officer held an all-staff meeting, at which he expressed how happy bank management was with our team. Literally one week later, he held another all-staff meeting, at which he announced our division had been sold to a bank in another state. You could keep your jobs if you wanted, but it would be in Minnesota. For someone who enjoyed life in California, that did not sound like a viable option.
I immediately went to my office and started to look for a new job, and the job I found led me into a thirty-year career in the staffing business.
By continually assessing your career landscape and staying alert regarding potential changes that may affect your life of employment, you stay one step ahead because you are prepared to adapt, if necessary, whether the signs are blatant or less obvious.
Peter Page: In your book, Tune Up Your Career: Tips & Cautions for Peak Performance in the Workplace, you talk about climbing down the corporate ladder! Why would anyone decide to head in a downward direction toward the land of indistinct titles and less pay?
Chris Fontanella: One of the greatest career misconceptions that has confused employees is this: taking a step down is the worst possible thing you can do. Careers, we assume, should be always on the rise. We should go UP the corporate ladder, never DOWN.
But stepping down the corporate ladder is a wise decision IF it allows you to better align yourself within an organization. Believe it or not, you can be in the most senior position within a company, you can be making the big bucks, you can be “top dog” or the “head honcho,” and not be in a position that allows you to fully use your gifts and talents, and limits your sense of work-life fulfillment.
I recommend “right sizing” yourself by knowingly and willingly putting yourself in your proper place, a repositioning that allows you to be truer to yourself and your career goals.
Of course, this is not to say one should not be wise when it comes to the timing of taking such steps. Each individual, in light of their current situation in life, must think through when to make such a move. As mentioned above, there is wisdom in continually assessing one’s career landscape. Mapping and remapping the sketch lines of your career is always a critical process to put oneself through.
Peter Page: People’s calling—their career—has far-reaching ramifications. Whether one is about to start their career or continue on a career path, what are some steps to discovering the overarching theme that provides the reasons to get up and go to work each day?
Chris Fontanella: Finding your calling—the overarching theme that guides what you do for a living—happens differently for each person. Someone may know from an early age that they always wanted to be a concert pianist. Sometimes people happen into a career, like myself. I was losing my job at Bank of America, and I found a job in the staffing industry, and it turned out to be something I loved. It resonated with me because it allowed me to help people, which was an important thing to me when it came to what I did for a living. The number of ways we can find our calling is limitless.
There are a couple steps you can take to help you discover your overarching theme. The first one is what has already been mentioned, and that is to map out your territory of exploration. Really think about what you want to be. Write down your interests, desires, and dreams. Ask yourself why you studied microbiology. Give thought to your experiences and record what you loved about them and what you hated. Consider the events in your life that have shaped you. From these, begin to sketch out an area to explore.
The next step is to start to dig. That which is worth finding is worth working to find. It would be foolish to go to an archeological site without a shovel. To find what you are seeking, you must be willing to dig. Said another way, start working your ass off.
As has already been said, make amendments to your map along the way. First sketches are rarely final sketches. Practically speaking, this means you should not rigidly define your map’s boundary lines. Some people think the darker the lines, the better—and more accurate—the map. Such make-drawing boldness is presumptive and does not account for the winds of change that may require you to alter your original map. Career mapmakers, like authors, understand the importance of editing.
Peter Page: The story of every businessperson who embraces the dream of being an entrepreneur involves challenges, struggles, obstacles, and difficulties that must be worked through, overcome, solved, and sometimes ignored. What does it take to succeed, and what tips can you give someone to help them decide if they are right for the undertaking?
Chris Fontanella: One way you can take total control of your career is by becoming an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is career ownership at the highest level. It allows you to be “master of your destiny,” so to speak, though it is important to remember no one is ever in complete control. Only the egomaniacal think they are.
Striking out on one’s own involves challenges, setbacks, struggles, and the like. If you choose that path, be prepared for all that and more. Here’s some of what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur:
- A willingness to start from scratch and a willingness to start at the bottom. We learn at the bottom all we need to be at the top.
- Comfortability with failure. The careers of most successful entrepreneurs are pockmarked with mistakes made.
- Maintaining a second job, if necessary, until your dream job takes root.
- Understanding the road to successful entrepreneurship is NOT a direct route. The paths of entrepreneurs are more winding than straight and include right moves and wrong moves, good steps, and missteps.
- Determination. Oftentimes, it is more important than any degree you may have. There are plenty of success stories of people without a high school education or any education at all. Rare are stories of successful people who lacked an unwavering adherence to a purpose.
Only you can decide if entrepreneurship is right for you. To determine if you are, ask yourself this question: Am I willing to go for it? Entrepreneurs are normal people who “go for it.” There is no magic wand to wave, no silver bullet to use. All it really requires is guts—guts to pull out all the stops, guts to put your heart and soul into something, guts to start somewhere, knowing you’ll get where you want to go.
Peter Page: Unexpected and unplanned events at work and changes in the broader economy happen all the time. How can we hear and recognize those sounds of change—what you call “workplace noise”—and respond accordingly? Can you describe the four types of “noise” to watch out for and a triple response program that just might save someone’s career?
Chris Fontanella: Change in the workplace is par for the course; accept it as a reality that will visit you one day or another. If you stay vigilant in relation to the development of your career—you are regularly assessing the topography of your life of employment—you’ll be able to hear and recognize those sounds of change, or what I call “workplace noise.”
Workplace noise occurs both within the organization and without. The clamoring within includes scuttlebutt about the company being sold (or just one or more business units), rumors about certain jobs being outsourced, layoffs and downsizing, changes in management, unexpected resignations, and more, i.e., occurrences that hold the potential to impact your employment with the company.
You may also hear rumblings outside of the organization. Pay attention to macroeconomic conditions. For example, if you notice the industry of which you are part is going through a consolidation phase, your company may be a take-over target. What if another pandemic visits the world? How might that impact your job? Will your company feel the need to make a reduction in workforce? How will inflation affect the company you’re employed by? If the company’s gross margins go down, will they feel the need to reduce payroll costs and fire people? These are all indicators that change is possible, and your willingness to be adaptable must increase.
A response program that you can implement should at least include the following:
- Acceptance that changes can happen at any moment.
- Assessing your current career progress to date. Ask yourself some hard questions about where you are at in achieving your career goals, and consider whether or not the change has created an opportunity for you to segue into something new.
- Determine if you can live with the change. Sometimes, it makes sense to go with the flow and see where it takes you. Other times, it provides the reason to leave. For every person who says, “This isn’t going to work for me,” there is someone else who is saying, “This might be good for me.” Only you can say.
- If necessary, plan an exit. Unexpected events often create moments of destiny. These changes may be signs it is time for you to make a move. If so, avoid being impetuous, but strategize about how you should depart.
- Allow for an adjustment period. Anything new takes time to get used to. Be prepared for differences, and allow yourself the time needed to get acclimated.
Peter Page: You talk about the role of mysticism in helping to define a career. You say mysticism simply means to close one’s eyes or lips. It’s the practice of removing visual distractions and shutting your mouth so you can “see” and “hear” what cannot be seen or heard with your natural eyes and ears. Please explain how to tap into your inner mystic to discover the dream-filled message that can revolutionize your career.
Chris Fontanella: In my book, I offer a simplified definition of mysticism to stave off any concerns people may have about religious connotations associated with the word. At the heart of it—and the etymology of the word supports this—mysticism implies closing your eyes and lips so you can “hear” better. In so doing, you are better postured for contemplation and reflection. Mysticism, defined in this manner, is the equivalent of a “hall pass” that grants your mind freedom to wander; your thoughts have permission to roam other “dimensions”—and dream big.
This can be done anywhere: while sitting in your kitchen as your mind “stews” about something besides dinner in the oven; while lying in bed as your mind turns over an idea; while driving your car as your mind tunes into another “frequency” that has nothing to do with work.
To help you tap into your inner mystic, you can follow the advice of mythologists, who stress the importance of entering a walled garden, the place you retreat for healthy introspection, contemplation, and reflection. Here’s how Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company and author of The Ride of a Lifetime, puts it: “It is vital to create space in each day to let your thoughts wander beyond your immediate job responsibilities.” When you do this, you are better positioned to hear “messages”—an exceedingly ambitious plan for your career, perhaps. In my experience, that’s when life-changing, meaningful messages seem to emerge.
To get started, take fifteen minutes each day, preferably the same time, so as to create a routine, and just listen. Closing your eyes and silencing your mind helps. And it gets easier to enter that “space” each time you do it. Then, take it one step further and record any “messages” you think you heard.
Peter Page: Is there anything you want to mention that I haven’t asked about?
Chris Fontanella: I’d like to remind career-minded people that wrong moves are never final moves. You can always take a step in another direction. It is not uncommon to go down a wrong career path or need to backtrack or make a U-turn. All career steps are interconnected, and “wrong” moves are not wrong moves at all. They were necessary steps to get you to the very place you are now at.
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