What's next when you don't fit into any of the conventional career slots? The path to finding your niche can be compelling and rewarding, as well as long and rocky.
Even as a child, Ian Blei saw things differently. He liked to solve jigsaw puzzles with the picture face down. How the pieces fit together was the most interesting part of the puzzle. In grammar school, his teachers did not appreciate his inquiring mind and saw him as a disruptive influence. There were frequent trips to the vice principal's office. This kid asked too many questions!
As an adult, his uncompromising honesty and outspokenness would create problems for him in the corporate world. He liked to rock the boat. When he saw a better way to do something, he said so and recommended changes without regard to company politics. After years of working for other people and excelling and being fired (or forced to resign) from each job, Ian decided to stop trying to be part of corporate cultures that valued going along to get along. Here's how he created his own niche.
"In my first corporate job, I went from stock clerk to assistant vice president working at a bank. I was putting myself through college majoring in industrial design and engineering. I became very involved in process and flow - getting things from Point A to Point B in the most efficient and economical way possible. Just one of my suggestions dropped the bank's monthly supply budget from $45,000 to $11,800. But I didn't take hierarchy, turf or convention into account, and those were the only criteria for advancement that had been in place for the history of the unit. I was a pariah.
"After four years, I got a new boss who wasn't afraid of change (or me). I caught a break when a new VP realized that getting credit for the improved performance would be good for his career. He knew I was a continuing source of cost-saving improvements so keeping me around could serve him. I was promoted quickly, given new titles and pay, and asked for my contributions. This all worked well until he made the fatal management mistake: he gave credit for my work to another manager he was grooming. My ideas were great, but I still wasn't enough of a team player. I might have been able to swallow my pride on that one, had there not also been a $5,000 bonus and a department-wide celebration of 'her' accomplishment. It was time to move on.
"My next lesson came as operations manager for a large retail musical instruments store. I knew I was in trouble from the start when the district manager called me 'that *#$@!* college kid.' However, he visited only periodically so I thought I could handle the sneering and create improvements and profits quickly. I was naove. I assumed that bringing in more money would endear me to management. Instead, my proposals were met with open hostility. My job became 'do it the old way or else!' After several months, I opted for the 'or else.' This time I would look for a position where they actually wanted someone with fresh ideas.
"I found an ad for a 'turnaround specialist,' and jumped for joy. At last someone actually wanted to hire me for me. The district manager for a retail chain was looking for a manager for her flagship store. She wanted that store to achieve its potential.
"I trained the staff in customer service and 'up' selling. I enrolled them in the turnaround campaign. They became a workforce of enthusiastic consultants looking for innovative ways to cut costs. We tripled the bottom line. I finally understood that the industry or type of business didn't matter; they all lived or died by the processes of doing the work. This realization came just in time because everything was about to fall apart. Within weeks of each other, three corporate executives retired and the woman who had hired me left the company because of a serious illness. Suddenly, I was alone with no allies supporting me. With new bosses in place, increased profits no longer outweighed my refusal to play politics.
"The time had come to make the leap to self-employment. I thought it would be a straightforward, smooth transition. Wrong again. I started my own consulting company using the 'expert' model, but there were two problems with that. (1) The 'I'm the smart guy with all the answers' role didn't sit well with me. It was too egocentric. (2) There's a joke that asks: what do people fear most next to death and public speaking? Answer: hiring a consultant. I realized that, for many people, a consultant equaled a bottomless pit of time and money with uncertain results.
"It took time to rework my business model, but I ultimately solved both problems. I now offer short-term, easily understood consulting packages (with concrete deliverables) that turn managers and business owners into expert consultants for themselves. I ask the right questions and give them the tools to create their own answers. They take charge of their futures.
"This final lesson was the most important, and it applies to anyone who is looking for his/her own niche. First, choose your top five interests and talents. Then, think about how you can put them together so they serve a need that you see. And last, put yourself in the other guy's shoes (with his problems, reservations, questions). Why does he need you? What are his reservations about hiring you? How you can best solve his problems (or serve his needs)?
"It took me years to discover how to take my special skills and dovetail them with the needs I saw all around me. I hope you can learn from my mistakes and find your niche much faster than I did. Don't expect it to be easy and don't give up!"
You can contact Ian Blei at firstname.lastname@example.org.