Small business: Advice on being what you want to be

  • Article by: Todd Nelson
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • September 9, 2007 - 3:33 PM

An entrepreneurial, hands-on approach to work may pay off, whether you're opening a coffee shop or reevaluating your spot in the company's food chain.

Many white-collar employees may not have a choice, with the post-World War II expectation of lifetime corporate employment and the very idea of a career path now seemingly obsolete -- thanks to downsizing, outsourcing and offshoring.

As companies face greater global competition, job competition also rises. Skills needed for those jobs continue to change, just as companies find markets in constant flux.

As scary as all that may sound, it also can be empowering, according to Sally Power, a management professor at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.

"It's going to be very chaotic for a while," Power said. "That's the negative perspective. The positive perspective is that there's going to be a lot of experimentation and adventure.... You can be what you want to be, throughout your entire life. That used to not be true, when you were stuck at whatever large company you had wheedled yourself into until they gave you the gold watch and said goodbye."

Power should know. She reinvented her career in academia, leaving the dissatisfying administrative track she had set out on in favor of a more rewarding specialty as an expert in career management.

She shares her experience and some of her research in her book, "The Mid-Career Success Guide: Planning for the Second Half of Your Working Life."

Published in October, the book also offers career success strategies and ways to develop new skills and knowledge in these uncertain times to manage a career in midlife and beyond.

The key, for beleaguered white-collar corporate types or those starting their own companies, is to take charge, Power said. That means directing careers proactively as the job world changes, and to prepare to pursue work life in different directions, not just up a corporate ladder.

Early into her career redirection, Power began looking into the changing dynamics of the working world.

She read in "The Future of Capitalism" by Lester Thurow that real incomes had stagnated for most Americans since the early 1970s. At about the same time, the unspoken contract between employers and employees -- longtime work in exchange for longtime loyalty and good, hard effort -- had begun to break down.

"We're not going back," Power said. "We're like Dorothy, we're not going back to Kansas. Then I thought, 'What would you have to do if you want to beat the new system?'"

Entrepreneurship appears to be a growing midcareer option. A Kauffman Foundation report found that 55 percent of people starting businesses in 2005 were 55 or older, Power said.

That's an increase from 1999, when just 8 percent of people who had started new businesses were in that age range, according to a National Federation of Independent Businesses study. That same year, while entrepreneurs started more than 3 million companies, 1.3 million small businesses failed, according to the same study.

While many corporate workers dream of being their own boss and of the riches they assume come with starting their own company, Power said, they often discount the time and effort necessary to succeed in small business.

For those going into business for themselves, and for those working for someone else, the question is how to succeed in the emerging global economy.

The answer begins with a new model for career management, what Power calls Employability Plus. (That's also the name of the companion website she has developed at She defines the term as the ability for an employee to get jobs they will enjoy at the same or greater levels of reward.

Own the work, not the job

To succeed, today's employees need to learn how to stay current in their positions, to see employment options that offer growth and change and to develop knowledge and skills to suit your current employer and those of potential employers.

An underlying principal of Power's new model is a shift in thinking about employment, focusing less on the job -- which the employer owns -- and more on work, which the individual employee owns. In this sense, work is broader than a job, identifying a theme an individual wants to pursue in what may be a series of jobs or companies.

In Power's case, she thought she wanted to be a college president.

To that end, in the mid-1990s, she added a part-time administrative assignment to her faculty duties.

After roughly three years in administration, she found that she wasn't getting the rewards she had expected. She met with a career counselor and decided that she wanted to become an expert, soon settling on career management as a focus.

"It's worked really well," Power said. "I've still got the same job I had, but I completely changed how I do that job."

She first thought of writing a book in 1999. Along the way she flirted with the notion of trying to become a popular author -- "the next Tom Peters, for the common person."

Preparing for an interview with a big-time publisher, however, helped her decide not to aim for the mass market.

"There's a lot of glamour that goes around that potential," Power said.

But she realized that she would rather be at home instead of traveling extensively to promote books.

In the end, the publisher acted as her agent and helped her get a contract with a more specialized publishing firm for her book, which she is marketing to career counselors who are just beginning to deal with mid-career clients.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is

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