Art was never a strong subject for me at school, I preferred words. But like most children of the 70s and 80s paint by numbers was a guaranteed present under the Christmas tree. It meant even those of us who didn’t have an artistic bone in our bodies could produce a reasonable painting even if we didn’t quite manage to keep the colours in their prescribed areas.
So what, are you asking, has this to do with LinkedIn profiles? Most profiles are an exercise in paint by numbers. We have a tendency to paint a certain picture simply because we all harbour a deep-seated need to conform.
Have you noticed the uniformity of LinkedIn profiles as though there is a reluctance to acknowledge the route travelled if it isn’t a conventional one? By conventional I mean the paths most professionals are expected to follow – school, sixth form, university and then our first job often as a graduate trainee, in my case it was a trainee reporter with the Birmingham Evening Mail. Oh yes, I put myself into the conventional box and that’s reflected in my LinkedIn profile.
Thus, on graduating, with our feet placed firmly on the career ladder, most of us work our way up from there. Many of us will doggedly climb the corporate ladder, taking each step one by one whilst a few high flyers will take those steps in leaps and bounds. Some of us may take a step sideways or find ourselves switching industries, but we are likely to follow a fairly well set out course. Some of us follow the well-trodden path only to throw in the towel and trample a new way through the undergrowth. But we have our conventional start to fall back on.
Of course, there are plenty of examples of entrepreneurs who were decidedly unconventional. Steve Jobs springs to mind, famously dropping out of college before founding Apple, Richard Branson turned his back on school at the age of 16 to start a magazine aimed at students funded with advertising before living in a hippy commune (as did Jobs) and starting his mail order record company called Virgin which earned enough to enable him to expand to premises on Oxford Street. Then there’s Lord Sugar who started his business with less than £100 selling car aerials and electrical items out of the back of his van.
Whilst we applaud and celebrate their unconventionality, entrepreneurial vision, hard work and sheer determination, are we as accepting of our own colleagues and peers who may have travelled a different route? In particular, how do we view those who did not attend university and what about those who have undertaken a number of menial jobs in the early years?
Take my partner, for example, after leaving school he took one job after another including working behind the bar at his local pub, general dogsbody at a timber merchants before he worked his way up to office manager and became involved in their accounts. It was here he found his niche and he moved onto a series of jobs in accounts departments of different companies before landing the job as assistant accountant with a large retailer. He then went onto become an area management accountant with a waste disposal company and then onto management accountant for an apprenticeship provider. Now he’s taken up the role as financial director for a small company with huge growth ambitions. He never went to university and he never qualified as an accountant. He’s no Richard Branson, Steve Jobs or Lord Sugar (unfortunately for me!), but he’s progressed from one job to the next which has led him to where he is today.
The crucial ‘but’ here, is it’s hardly a conventional story of career progression, particularly for his field and my point is, more people who find themselves in a certain position having come by the road less travelled should celebrate it more, particularly on LinkedIn.
When I was asked to help a friend of his tweak his LinkedIn profile to exude a more professional feel, he had chosen to start his career history at the point when he became a manager. It’s not necessarily an embarrassment of one’s roots, but perhaps more that it doesn’t quite fit the perceived view of how one progresses a career. If people are not shouting from the rooftops on LinkedIn about their humble beginnings, self-made millionaires aside, it obviously isn’t the ‘thing’ to do.
Yet, every juncture tells its own story, work as a plasterer tells me you’re a grafter and don’t mind getting your hands dirty, stints as a pub manager tells me how you got your first experience of leadership and managing a team, travelling tells me you’ve broadened your horizons.
A friend of mine, herself with a fairly conventional career path – university, management trainee although a switch of career saw her head back to uni and then into law, was recounting how she was looking through the CV of the intern who was due to join the office. Top A Level grades, a degree from one of the UK’s best universities, etc, but what really made him memorable in her eyes was his supermarket experience. He wrote about team working and customer care, maintaining store standards and adapting to different management styles. And it was this which set him apart from his peers in her eyes.
Your route to your current role may not be the familiar university to graduate trainee to foot on the career ladder, but so what? We’re a diverse workforce and we should celebrate that diversity in all its glory. LinkedIn provides the ideal place to fly all our flags be they conventional, off the beaten track, humble in origin or just plain weird or, perhaps, like most of us, a bit of a mixture.
Paint by numbers is great, but ultimately we all end up with the same picture. My advice is to forget the ‘template’, ignore what we think is ‘expected’ and paint in your own unique style. So if you’ve taken a different route, be it less travelled, off the beaten track or scenic, tell us about it!