Janice Burns, Chief Career Experience Officer at Degreed, explains how people can build fulfilling careers by building the right skills, communicating their value and following their passion.

What links psychology, teaching, marketing, and learning? My career has transformed several times since my early days studying psychology. Over that time, I’ve learned that building a meaningful and purposeful career requires courage, the ability to adapt and learn, and an understanding of both the art and science of career management. Before you can successfully craft a career that challenges and excites you, you must first become your own career architect. One who can design a career with a strong foundation and a solid structure.

Pivoting is something we once associated with the start-up world but it’s becoming the mainstay of all careers. Disruption is on the horizon and all jobs, all careers, will be impacted in one way or another. For some people, your role may shift overnight and require new skills. For others, you may choose alternative means of challenging yourself, through side gigs, for example, or changing industries completely.

Whatever your career choices, I recommend always turning back to the same fundamental steps to shape your career journey:

1. Find your areas of passion and work them into your career plans

My early passion for understanding and helping humans is my north star. I began my career originally planning to be a clinical psychologist. I was interested in understanding how humans think and how they behave.

After an emotionally intense summer working with very sick children, I decided psychology wasn’t for me and became a public school teacher in Harlem. This was when I encountered true education and learning inequality.

The experiences (and grades) of these children, who were labelled with behavioural problems and left with little-to-no expectations, would shape their careers for the rest of their lives. It was then that I realised that it was a systemic problem – something I am still fighting to solve.

Through teaching, marketing, and being the Chief Learning Officer at Mastercard, I’ve now become the Chief Career Experience Officer at Degreed. A new role created for my skills to advise organisations on how best to retrain, upskill, retain and utilise their workers – and a role I am using to forward my mission of reducing learning inequality.

2. Know your value. Develop the skills you need to increase this.

My next career step took me into a one-year management training programme in a bank. I recognised the value of my analytical and psychology skills combined and wanted to use this to differentiate myself.
After the programme, I chose to enter the marketing department at the bank as it offered the closest fit between analysing and influencing human behaviour. It was something I enjoyed for many years and brought me to Mastercard as a product manager. But ultimately, several years into that role, I felt like something was missing. When that happens, you’ll face a difficult choice, to follow your passion or work for your accolades and finances.
I chose the former. This meant reskilling again, in public versus business administration as I foresaw myself leaving the commercial sector completely and going into the public sector. This eventually didn’t happen for a number of personal reasons, so I looked at shaping my contribution within Mastercard into something that would give me personal and professional satisfaction. This translated into leading Mastercard’s diversity effort – and Mastercard eventually made it onto Diversityinc’s top 50 employers list.

3. Learn from your connections (mentors, sponsors, advocates etc.) and find your career tribe

Find the people who share the same vision and who are willing to work with you to achieve the same mission. In my career, this took various forms, from Mastercard’s CEO and Chief HR Officer, who liked and encouraged my strategic thinking. To David Blake, co-founder of Degreed and Learn In and co-author of The Expertise Economy, who shared my vision for educational equality.
Whoever you meet along your career journey has a lesson to teach you. They might further your skills and knowledge or provide inspiration for your next steps. Be open to what may come from building your network, engaging with a mentor, finding an advocate – and, of course, asking for advice when you need it.

4. Watch for opportunities that support your career goals. Go for them (even if you think you’re not quite ready).

Unfortunately, it’s known that women don’t go for career opportunities unless they are 100% qualified for them (men, meanwhile, apply when 60% qualified). This is selling yourself short as it doesn’t fully value your career and learning potential.

Likewise, don’t feel like you have to make a career move because it’s offered to you. At one point, after several years working in HR as a Business Partner who helped to start and grow a global product and services function, I was asked to take on the Chief Diversity Officer role again. Instead, I chose to double-hat, doing my previous role and the diversity role simultaneously as I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. I also started looking for my successor almost immediately (to prepare and train them).

That said, if you do have to take a position that doesn’t serve your long-term goals, learn everything you can from it. Transferable and social skills will serve you in any role, help you make significant career shifts, and future proof your career.

Taking the best next step

When you take those first steps in your career, you’re not going to know where you’ll end up. You may start off in one sector and move to another because of external factors, or you may discover a childhood dream wasn’t, in fact, for you. You may embrace the urge to set-up your own business. Or, you may have to take on a short-term role because of financial or family commitments. Remember, every step of your career builds your skills, your knowledge and makes you a unique individual to work with and employ.

When you’re on a journey where you cannot see the end of the road, you must use your passion to guide you. Even if you take detours, always return to your original purpose. Consider the legacy that you want to leave the world. For me, that’s making sure that everyone, regardless of their education, degree (or lack of it) and background, has access to the economic market. Use your skills to make a difference and do something you feel passionate about – the economics will (ultimately) take care of themselves.


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