I recently went to see Hidden Figures at the cinema (disclaimer, if you haven't seen it - this contains spoilers). Having seen a preview for it a few months earlier, I'd excitedly marked the release date in my diary and was keen to go and learn more about the story of the three African-American female mathematicians who played a critical role at NASA during the early days of the US space program.
The film documents the challenges these women faced in their workplace due to not only racial segregation, but also being women in a male-dominated environment. Whilst watching it I remember being particularly impressed with the efforts of Dorothy Vaughan, who recognises her job (and those of her team) are likely to become obsolete due to the new computers recently installed in the NASA building. On a side note, those IBM machines were huge.
Dorothy quietly takes it upon herself to become better than anyone on the NASA campus at programming these new computers, which even involves sneaking into the "Non-Coloured" section at her local library to access the technical books she needed. This hard work and perseverance results in a brand new job being created for her, with Dorothy becoming the first African American woman to ever be promoted to Supervisor at NASA, and ensures NASA retains her entire team in newly created roles in the computer lab due to the need she has made NASA realise it has for these extra resources to keep the computers programmed properly.
Dorothy's story is an incredible example of someone creating their own opportunities. It's very easy to sit back and hope things come to us, but with a bit of hard work, planning and focus it's surprising how many opportunities you can create during your own career. When I think back on my own "create your own opportunity" moments, two stand out:
The Seemingly Out of Reach Opportunity
I was an eleven year old, when I found out a really great sounding new high school was opening in our local area the following year, when my class would all be moving on from primary school to attend high school. This school was a private school with a great reputation and my best friend had been in touch with the school and had been through the application and interview process and received a place.
For some reason we'd not discussed high schools much at that stage, as it was all new to us and something the parents tended to manage. I decided to write to the school Principal, who phoned my shocked parents and invited us all in for an interview. Around a month later I had an offer of a place and was attending fittings for my swanky new school uniform. The Principal mentioned no one had ever written him a letter before, so I had stood out to him. This situation taught me it was possible to create my own opportunities - or at least that I could try.
The Unexpected Opportunity
Early in my career I worked in a large global mining company in an HR coordinator role. One day my manager announced she was going on maternity leave, and let me know she'd be starting the process of recruiting someone to cover for her whilst she was away. The next day I approached her with a business case of how I'd be able to do her job - she took that to her manager, he interviewed me, and I received a promotion into her role very quickly. They weren't expecting me to express an interest, and to be honest I certainly wasn't expecting to be doing my manager's role at that early stage in my career - but I was able to act quickly and create an opportunity for myself, and I still look back on this career-defining role really fondly.
The same type of approaches can apply to job-searches. It's often not enough to sit at home checking your favourite job website and hitting Apply whenever something which looks relevant comes up in the search results, or to assume if you send your resume to a recruitment agency, or apply for a job, the person reviewing your resume will automatically contact you. I do a lot of work with people who have an idea of what they want in their careers, but feel stuck and aren't quite sure how to get there - and seeing how I can help them create opportunities for themselves is an important (and really exciting) part of that work.
Have you ever created an opportunity for yourself during your career? It may not always work, and there aren't any guarantees, but at least you won't have any regrets and will be proud you tried to embrace your inner Dorothy Vaughan.
Sian Havard is Founder at Milkshake Group, a Brisbane, Australia based consultancy which coaches people around the world looking for awesome careers. Find her at www.milkshakegroup.com.