4 ways to leverage LinkedIn despite your non-linear career path

Here’s a not-so-little secret: people who have the most non-linear career paths, have the most interesting networks. Yet, I am always surprised when I meet young professionals who do not have a LinkedIn account. Typically, the reason is something along the lines of “my industry/field doesn’t require it” or “I’m not looking for a new job”. Both feel a bit narrow because they only deal in “I”. The first thing you should know about LinkedIn is the way over 200 million other professionals use it.

The goal of the site is simple: find the people you need, through the people you trust. The beauty of the networked economy is that someone is always looking and someone is always finding. And in a world where I hear young people constantly complaining about being underemployed or underutilized, there is always a need to connect with people who can help you. LinkedIn is a great place to find them…or for them to find you.

But I get the hesitation. LinkedIn, like a resume, is biased towards linearity – it prompts you to add positions, one at a time, by job title and then you have to assign time periods. The template can be intimidating for those who don’t have straight-line careers. Don’t let your intimidation stop you from playing in this space. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

1. Realize you’re not that unique.

Listen, the economy has left a trail of unconventional career paths and there is nothing wrong with that. Even though the LinkedIn profile tool is biased to a linear progression, there are multiple places where you can summarize your jobs into a cohesive story. For instance, you could use the Summary section to write a spiel about your diverse background and explain any job gaps or career switches. The Headline field is another option – even Reid Hoffman is surprised by how many people waste precious Headline space by filling it with their job title.

There are other places within your profile where you could insert compelling career content like photos and video, but before you take advantage of those spaces, you have to be open to changing the way you see yourself. There’s a self-perception theory that says we are both observers and narrators of own experience. LinkedIn is a platform where you get to be a narrator of your experience, not an observer.

2. As a narrator, your goal is not to present a carefully manicured path; your goal is to help others understand where you fit.

This is the part where you have to believe that switching jobs a few times is actually a tremendous asset. You get to talk about how different companies approach similar problems, like the way Chipotle woos Millennials is totally different than the way Taco Bell does it.

However, if your work experience is not set in the proper context, it can look unfocused. You have to find a way to provide context – what did you learn? what were you looking for, or in some cases, what were you running from? Think about context as a safety net that you have to build in.

Remember this picture of the Duke basketball team holding assault weapons? “If you take the image by itself […] it could be seen as are we somehow glamorizing gun violence or something like that,” the Athletic Director says. Well, we now know that the guns were fake, and that the boys were visiting a military academy. With the proper context, the only thing that makes the picture bad is that there is no safety net within the image.

3. Be crystal clear.  

The text that you include in your LinkedIn profile is searchable, so make sure you include key words within your profile. Try and limit your company’s internal jargon. As Steven Sinofsky says, “don’t ship the org chart”.

If you are a server, talk about the specific customer-service behaviors you exhibited while on the job. If you are a makeup artist, write about the specific kinds of makeup you specialize in. If you are student, highlight relevant coursework and any additional MOOC courses completed.

Stick to key terms and metrics that can be understood by everyone the same way. If you’re not sure which words to use, spend some time looking at how other professionals use the platform and copy that.

4. Get noticed for the work you do. 

Contributing in LinkedIn Groups is a great way to showcase the way you think. It not only diverts eyes to your page, it also allows you the chance to engage in some meaningful dialogue. If you’re feeling wary about putting something “dumb” out there, don’t worry. Just spend some time answering questions like this one from my Business Development group: “what’s more important: product knowledge or the ability to sell yourself?“.

There is no such thing as a dumb answer to an unanswerable question.

LinkedIn Groups also offer the ability to find people whose point of view you respect. Peruse through the forums and pick someone you want to be like. Click around their profile and then deconstruct their career. Maybe you’ll see a path you had not thought of before. Or maybe you’ll see an interesting company you had not previously considered – follow it!

The thing is, if you do this enough, you’ll see patterns. Patterns lead to connections and that’s the whole point of the site.

Regardless of how zig-zagged your job history is or how off-the-path your career is, everyone has the ability to connect.



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