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The Career Act Republic

What Gen. Petraeus Can Teach Job Seekers 
Excerpt from "The Career Act Republic"
By Peter Weddle

In 2005, Gen. David Petraeus was an executive in transition. Having fallen out of favor with the civilian leadership in the Department of Defense, he was reassigned to lead the Army's mid-level leadership school in Fort Leavenworth, Ka. For a combat commander, that wasn't a lateral move, it was a steep step backward. What the general did next, however, provides a rich case study of how to recover from a career setback.

Given his current high regard in both the media and the government, it's easy to forget that Gen. Petraeus was an outsider looking in just five years ago. How did he accomplish this extraordinary transformation? He followed a game plan that every single person who is out of work and feeling out of luck can and should emulate. It involves just three steps:

  • Reinvigorate your talent
  • Redefine your brand
  • Stay true to your new you.

Let's take a brief look at each of them.

Reinvigorate Your Talent
Gen. Petraeus had spent his entire career as an infantryman. He was a proud, old fashioned rifle carrying soldier whose job was to defeat the enemy in close combat. That's what he had been trained to do and that's certainly what he knew how to do best. It was not, however, what the Army needed for the war in Iraq. It had won the war with the Iraqi Army, but was losing the insurgency that followed it.

So, what did Gen. Petraeus do? First, he carefully assessed the situation on the ground in Iraq to determine what the problem was. Then, he thought through the alternative strategies and determined that the traditional tactics of ground combat had to be replaced with a new kind of counterinsurgency warfare. Finally, he acquired the knowledge necessary to develop that new strategy and literally wrote the "book," the Army's Field Manual, which detailed it.

That's exactly what those of us in transition need to be doing, as well. Employers increasingly believe they need new strategies and tactics to win the competition in the global marketplace. They are no longer looking for people who can accomplish the job the way it used to be done-no matter how well they were able to do it. What they want, what they need, is someone who can devise new approaches to accomplishing work and is willing to extend their talent so they can deliver those approaches effectively on the job. You don't have to write a book, but you do have to be credibly able to deliver innovative excellence on the job.

Redefine Your Brand
Gen. Petraeus didn't just develop a new way of war-fighting, he redefined himself as its author and champion. In other words, he was no longer an old fashioned infantryman; he was the "father of counterinsurgency" and rebuilt his reputation on that theme. He was tireless in his efforts to explain it to his superiors in the Defense Department, to convert his peers to his point of view and to convince all of them of its potential to turn the tide in Iraq.

A similar campaign is also critical to success for those of us in transition. Hard as it is to reshape your talent for the new and often confusing needs of the post recession world of work, that's only half the battle. Once you've accomplished your reinvigoration, you have to convince others that you're different. You have to break out of your legacy brand — the old way you described yourself in the workforce — and develop a clear and compelling description of your new persona.

This redefined brand must be accurate, of course, but beyond, that it must set you apart. It must differentiate you from those who are still offering the traditional strategies and tactics in your field and for the kind of job you seek. And, it has to portray you as the singular person who both knows how to be a key contributor to the success of an employer and will not flinch from playing that role.

Stay True to Your New You
The journey of Gen. Petraeus from a backwater command in Kansas to the front lines of this nation's Armed Forces didn't occur without some difficult twists in the road and a setback or two. He had the courage of his convictions, however, and a fierce determination to succeed. He fought through the hard times because he believed in himself and what he could do. While his reinvigorated talent and redefined brand were both essential to his advancement, it was that factor — his character — that ensured his success.

The same is true for those of us in the civilian workplace. Whether you've been shoved out the door and into the job market or into a box with no security or opportunity, it is who you are on the inside that will determine what happens to you on the outside. That doesn't mean the course will be easy or without its frustrations, but it does mean there is hope ... if you believe enough in yourself to grab hold of it.

Not everyone can lead an army into combat but everyone, every single person, can be a victor even in today's rough and tumble world of work. It will require that you teach your talent some new and more powerful ways of contributing and that you reset your brand so that your new capability is recognized by prospective employers. Those tasks take courage and commitment, to be sure, but their accomplishment is a gift, an affirmation of the indomitable spirit resident in each and all of us. If you stay true to that limitless personal possibility, you will always end up a winner.