Boss your career

Don't quit your job, take control of it.

“Income without leaving your home!” promises one online advertisement. “Achieve and enjoy a lifestyle of wealth and freedom,” guarantees another, promising to teach you how to earn millions while lolling about in your pyjamas all day long.

Copious amounts of advice, respectable and otherwise, are available for people who want to run their own companies. For many, the idea of turning their backs on the traditional workplace and working for themselves is incredibly tantalizing. After all, it's no surprise that after a long week of late nights spent frantically meeting deadlines and placating higher-ups, someone might be desperate to say goodbye to the grind.

Before you hand in your resignation, however, pause for a moment. The independence and flexibility associated with self-employment may appear sexy, but for most of us, striking out on our own isn't a viable option. To succeed with self-employment, says Alan Kearns, founder of Toronto-based career coaching company Career Joy, “you have to be ready professionally, emotionally and financially. And your family has to be ready for that kind of step, too.” Often, the timing just isn't right. And in many cases, the only way for individuals to gain critical experience working on the largest projects and the biggest deals in their industry is by being employed by a major corporation.

And as glamorous as working for yourself may appear, it's not a walk in the park. “In most cases,” says John Eckmire, vice-president of public programs and education at Canadian Management Centre in Toronto, “running a successful business, where you are your own boss, is a lot more difficult than people think.” Most people, he adds, “don't understand the sleepless nights, the having to meet payroll.” You can set your own hours, but ultimately you're at the mercy of your customers.

Still, no one enjoys feeling like a prisoner to his or her job. “The No. 1 issue people struggle with, at all levels,” says Kearns, “is wanting a greater sense of control over their destiny and future. Whether they work at a bank, or are finishing an NHL career, they want to decide what projects to be involved in, what kind of clients they have, and how to have control.”

If you're feeling stifled, there are ways to improve the situation. In some cases, achieving a sense of control may simply require a change of positions. Take, for example, John Purchase, 46, who in the mid-'90s was working as a business analyst at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. After a few years, Purchase expanded his role beyond straight analysis to include project management, some IT and marketing, becoming what he refers to as an “organizational entrepreneur”–someone who stays within an organization, but spots and capitalizes on opportunities beyond his or her role. Purchase found that with each new role he took on, new opportunities popped up. “You realize you're not just eating pancakes, you're at a whole buffet, and it gives you the chance to try different things,” he explains. In 1997, Purchase made the full entrepreneurial leap and left CMHC to start Ottawa-based consulting firm Keda Technologies Inc., along with his wife, Colette, a human resources consultant.

In many cases, asserting some independence can be accomplished without changing employers. “Having independence within a corporation,” says Toronto executive-search and coaching specialist Michael Stern, “amounts to how much leeway and trust you get from your boss. If you are a team player who gets results, you can pretty much write your own ticket.”

Experts say that if you follow these four steps, chances are good you'll feel like your own boss–even if you're not the one sitting in the corner office.

1. Change your attitude

Randall Craig, president of Toronto-based career advisory firm Pinetree Advisors Inc., says that recognizing you are in control of your career is Job 1. “Oftentimes, individuals feel the organization owes them a job,” he explains. “Or they have a job, and they don't know how they got there.” Understanding that it is within your power to make changes in your work life is essential. “So much of it is attitudinal,” Craig says. “There is no reason you can't act entrepreneurial within an organization.”

In fact, Michael Mayne, managing partner at Catalyst Career Strategies in Toronto, counsels his clients to think of themselves as one-person businesses, and to think of their employers as customers asking for 100% of the business's time. “It is remarkable how that one shift in attitude can make quite a difference in terms of taking charge of your career,” he says. Mayne also suggests that devising a plan for your career, and establishing semi-annual sessions with yourself to evaluate your progress, further encourages a sense of ownership over your career.

2. Communicate

It doesn't necessarily take years of hard work to earn your boss's trust. Generally, within three to six months of starting with a new manager, your reputation is solidified. If you're really exceptional–or abominable–it can take even less time.

The key to establishing and maintaining a strong reputation, and getting your pick of projects while keeping a manager who likes to hover at bay, is communication. Assuming you do your job well, interacting with all your colleagues–up, down and sideways–so co-workers know precisely what you're doing is the logical next step.

There are two other words to keep in mind when contemplating communicating with your boss: reassurance and enthusiasm. If you discover a problem, come up with possible solutions before presenting the issue to your superiors.

Communication can also be the key to dealing with a micro-manager. Richard Casavant, president of Coach Excellence Inc., an Ottawa-based coaching and mentoring business, recommends what he calls the “DESC” approach: describe, express, specify, consequences (positive and negative). Describe the problem (“Mr. Boss, you require updates every hour”). Express how that behaviour impacts your productivity (“I find this very time-consuming”). Specify what you want to see happen, making a request to stop a certain behaviour (“In the future, perhaps I could submit daily updates”). Last, outline the consequences of inaction (“It would be more efficient to focus more energy on the project than on writing an excessive number of reports for you”).

3. Take the Initiative

In their book, Entrepreneurship, professors Robert Hisrich of Case Western Reserve University, Michael Peters of Boston College and Dean A. Shepherd of Indiana University wrote that traditional corporate culture dictates that workers adhere to the instructions given, not make any mistakes, not fail, not take the initiative but wait for instructions, stay within their turf–and protect their backsides.

Maybe so, but, as Eckmire of Canadian Management Centre says, “almost any manager, in almost any organization, will very much value somebody who comes to them and says, 'I've been looking at this particular opportunity, and I'd like the mandate to handle this.'”

While asking for more assignments may seem at odds with the impetus to disentangle yourself from the corporate web, in fact, by spending time doing projects that you want to do, you're demonstrating both your expertise, capabilities and motivation. “You take on new complicated responsibilities that make your job difficult,” says Eckmire, “but the other part of your responsibilities fall away behind you. You end up with people who report to you and, ultimately, in the position of having fewer people telling you what to do.”

Taking the initiative to bump up your education or acquire a new skill can also increase your sense of empowerment. Mayne warns that some people give up on professional development courses, deciding to work longer hours instead, because they assume overtime is the fastest route to a promotion. But in this era of waning employer-employee loyalty, keeping your credentials up to date may provide more flexibility and independence than another day spent burning the midnight oil.

4. Negotiate

When you're feeling constrained, says career coach Kearns, “you have to find a balance between the corporate interests and your interests.” Negotiating with your employer “for middle-ground issues,” he adds, “is key.” Whether it is more money, more flexible hours, or more control over what you work on, fight for what is the most important to you, and forget about the rest. Negotiations can take place informally or, depending on the accommodations you're looking for, might require a special conversation with your human resources department.

Casavant of Coach Excellence points out that most people working in a large, hierarchical organization, will be happy to abide by some rules, but will find others irksome. “That is part of the contract,” he says. But if you build credibility within your organization, you'll likely earn the freedom to do as you like. “Many people want to be their own boss,” says Eckmire, “but the sacrifices involved, and the risks one has to take, even within an organization, to achieve that–most people aren't prepared to do that.” Make the effort, however, and you're more likely to achieve the freedom to do your job as you please–or at least to feel better about working til 3 a.m.

With files from Alex Mlynek