Are You Locked in the Trunk of Your Professional Car?

As we zoom around in the racecar of life, we sometimes fail to recognize in our excitement and enthusiasm — or just plain nose-to-the-grindstone existence — that our mindsets may not have kept pace with the rapid changes we are making. We become conditioned to think in a certain way, unaware that what’s coming around the bend could demand an entirely different perspective.

Some of these shifts occur when we take our very first job and begin a stint as an employee. For many of us, this is a logical path, since it’s much easier to be hired by someone to do a job than it is to, say, start a business right out of school.

But some of the most dramatic shifts take place when we decide it’s time to strike out on our own, usually after an extended period in corporate, government, academic, or military settings. If we’re not prepared for the new challenges of independence, it may take a bit of floundering before we come to grips with the latest set of expectations. Therefore, this article discusses a series of shifts that tend to occur as we pursue greater independence in our professional lives.


Taking the Car for a Little Spin


Whenever I’m advising my clients, I often find myself using a car analogy to describe what can transpire during the span of our careers. Particularly if we start off as employees in a large company, it’s not unusual to develop an employee mindset in which we never learn to “drive” the company “car.” That is, we may never learn to operate the controls that propel the organization forward unless we’re promoted to a fairly high position or work for a family-owned business.

In fact, we might not even be able to see through the front window of the car — much less steer it — if the company does not somehow involve us routinely in making business decisions. As employees, that’s the only way we would be able to gain experience with roaming the road.


Climbing from the Trunk into the Driver’s Seat


Based on my own experience and what I’ve observed in many others, I feel the car analogy helps compare different working modes in our lives. These modes may repeat and even overlap extensively. They are essentially neutral, as each avenue we pursue can serve us well at the right time. The point is that during each shift, our mindsets must evolve to keep pace with the demands of each new scenario:

1) Employee mode – can feel in some cases as if we’re “locked in the trunk of the car,” unable to perceive where the organization is headed. As employees, we can become conditioned to a feeling of passive security, where others make all major decisions. In job interviews, we’re expected to passively respond to questions based on a relatively passive marketing tool.

2) Contract mode – is the next stage in the progression where we take on work that has been outsourced by others. Since we are now independent, we must at least be able to able to see out of the “front window” of our metaphorical car, even if it only occurs from the “back seat.” To pursue new business, we may use brochures and similar proactive marketing materials, including proposals.

3) Consulting mode – puts us even closer to being in full control of our vehicle because we are taking a trusted advisory role with our clients. This places us figuratively in the “passenger’s seat,” where we can see a client’s challenges clearly and may even be holding the navigation map. To solicit new business, in addition to other marketing tools, we might rely more heavily on proposals.

4) Entrepreneurial mode – places us squarely in the “driver’s seat” of the car, particularly if our goal entails building a self-propelled, turnkey operation that hires employees and can eventually run without our day-to-day involvement. In this mode, we (along with our team) must make all risk-reward decisions, based on a business plan or similar strategic planning process.

In conclusion, understanding the mindset shifts we tend to make over time helps us prepare more effectively for each stage. If we ultimately move into an entrepreneurial mode after many years of employment, making the appropriate shifts smoothly lubricates our thinking and helps us come up to speed more quickly.