Escape Your Pigeonhole

If you're good at what you do, you may get pigeonholed. Here's how to avoid that fowl fate.

You have to marvel at the sheer breadth of film-animation jobs that Colum Slevin has been able to talk his way into to avoid being pegged in one slot. Perhaps he picked up the powers of Jedi mind persuasion while leading the special-effects team for Star Wars: Episode III for George Lucas's Industrial Light + Magic studios. He has been the artist who laboriously hand drew images on celluloid, the tech geek who managed the team that invented software that enables computer-generated water to "flow," and the taskmaster who enforced tight production schedules for an army of computer-graphic artists. The variety is impressive in a discipline where specialization can often lead to spending years perfecting a single special effect.

According to Slevin, 36, his ability to jump deftly among disparate project roles is critical to his happiness. "I'd get bored if I had to stick with one type of work for too long," he says.

For those like Slevin, herein lies the conundrum: How do you develop the expertise to be known as the go-to guy or gal for certain projects or jobs without getting so tightly defined that you're stuck working on the same project (or in the same industry) year after year? Is it possible to fly the pigeonholing coop? Most assuredly. Slevin's career suggests that paying attention to how you position your experience and the expertise you develop can make all the difference. Prepare your own coop coup with his advice, along with plenty from others who've managed to take flight.

1. Think skills, not experience

People often get pigeonholed because they define themselves on their resumes and in performance reviews in terms of tasks completed and job titles. It's more effective to think in terms of capabilities. When Valerie Vargas, 33, graduated from law school in 1997, she already knew that being shackled in a law library for years while angling for a partnership wasn't her calling. But what else to do with a law degree? Vargas highlighted the research skills she gained, rather than the law, and landed a market-research job for telecommunications company BellSouth. Now the vice president of marketing for HomeBanc Mortgage Corp., a mortgage-loan originator based in Atlanta, Vargas has used the same positioning tactic to vault from leading a marketing team amid a merger to managing national sponsorship programs.

2. Fight corporate inertia

If you're good at what you do, it's in the company's best interest to keep you in your cozy little niche. You have to make it more compelling for the company to move you than to leave you parked right where you are. How do you do that? Elise Olding, 51, who has held jobs at the executive level in information technology and change management for companies such as Levi Strauss and Charles Schwab, always picks and trains her successor. That way, when she's ready to move on to a new job or project, the company has no vested interest in holding her back. "I typically make a commitment to a project for 18 to 24 months and offer upfront to groom one of my staff to replace me," Olding says. "My boss winds up with a risk-free offer, and I have an exit strategy."

3. Become a startup master

The best way to ensure that variety will continually spice up your career is to get pigeonholed as a person who leads new ventures. One key to developing that expertise is to learn how to nimbly shed "we've always done it this way" thinking, says Slevin. He once led a team at 20th Century Fox to teach traditional animators how to use computers to draw and create movies. He noticed that animators who failed to make the transition were stuck thinking in terms of how to re-create the hand-drawn animation process with the computer, rather than seeing the new opportunities technology could offer. "Some people get frustrated by change and get left behind," he says.

Since then, Slevin has used that lesson to invent new jobs for himself, including his current position at ILM, which integrates the management of both production deadlines and staff -- two areas that had always been treated separately. "The easiest way to get pigeonholed is to cling to models and processes that you're familiar with," Slevin says. "If there is one thing that I've done consistently, it's been being willing to take on new challenges and turn things upside down."

4. Seek the edge

Fast-growing companies, or companies experimenting with new markets or new technologies, are great places to work if you want to move around. Vargas thought about that when making choices about where to apply for jobs. She suggests looking at a company's track record: What new products or services has it brought to market lately? Do the individuals who work there see opportunities for their own growth inside the company?

Since using those criteria to find HomeBanc in 2001, Vargas has led multiple initiatives within the company, including a pioneering "store in a store" concept that places HomeBanc mortgage locations within real-estate offices. "Growing companies are more likely to hand over opportunities to internal employees," Vargas says. "It's easier to use someone who already knows the ropes and the right people rather than going out and hiring a specialist who'll have to take time to ramp up. You almost have to try to get pigeonholed in a company like that."

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