Over the last twenty years I have had the privilege of working with many individuals as they confront different career turning points in their lives, from career promotion to transitions and radical career changes. While every individual faces their own unique set of circumstances, I have been struck in recent years by a changing pattern in the way individual careers seem to develop and take shape, especially for the more senior leader or executive.
For many executives, this changing pattern is about a combination of the “full-time, up the ladder” career development and the “short term, project based, consulting” career. Many senior leaders and executives today are being forced to move away from thinking about “career progression” (CFO to another bigger CFO role or Marketing Director to another bigger Marketing Director role) as the expected norm for their continued growth and development of their individual career. They now need to reframe their thinking against a backdrop of periods of “career flexibility” that might see the individual spend short periods in project consulting work or short term assignment delivery, before the next “big” role eventuates.
Some of this change has been driven by a reaction on the part of organisations to the post Global Financial Crisis (GFC) volatile market operating conditions. This has meant that there has often been some reluctance on the part of organisations to change existing leadership and a cautious approach to recruitment and the introduction of new talent during periods of market instability and uncertainty.
But some of this change has also been driven by the individuals themselves who feel that they want to exert more control over their careers. Individuals want to be self-directed and take initiative for their own career direction, acting more as “free agents”¹ than lifetime employees. The market would appear to be paying a price for the multiple rounds of layoffs and downsizing so prevalent in the 80’s and 90’s that has now produced a real sense of employee dedication to their own career vs. dedication to a company. As Edie Goldberg has commented in his recent White Paper, The Perfect Career Storm, “as a result, company loyalty has been replaced by employees who are savvy about their marketability, and they are regularly making stay/leave decisions based on changing factors in their work and personal lives."2
In the context of this new way of thinking about career development and progression, there is now a substantial body of research “pointing to the fact that continuous learning and personal growth is one of the most important factors in employee engagement and retention.”³ As Goldberg has pointed out, “rather than talking about the career ladder we are more likely to begin to talk in terms of the career web, where the next steps to build one’s career are more likely to be lateral or adjacent moves.”4
In this context I would suggest that these same senior leaders and executives are now far more conscious of what drives their personal work satisfaction. They are conscious that, with the demands made by many organisations on personal time and commitment in today’s working environment, they want to ensure that the organisational context supports their work ethic, values and personal circumstances.
Stybel and Peabody, in an article in the Consulting Psychology Journal also reinforced how the realities of career success for the senior leader and executive are changing in recent times. They pointed out “ladder climbing was a great framework for career management within larger industrial-based corporations in the post World War II period. Traversing careers is a much more appropriate metaphor for the first quarter of the 21st century.”5
My experience of working with senior leaders and executives has reinforced that career success is often achieved by demonstrating two aspects of success. Firstly, an individual needs to have absolute clarity about the real value and personal perspective their skills and experience contributes to organisational success. For many, this clarification can be a challenging exercise as so often individuals define themselves within their functional or industry expertise.
Secondly, an individual senior leader or executive needs to be able to leave behind the security they find in technical mastery and demonstrate leadership capability and achievement. For many, it is technical mastery that has built individual competence and confidence. But in today’s world of complexity and volatility, a demonstrated competence of leadership, will often enable the individual to be considered for new career challenges.
If, as Stybel and Peabody suggest, traversing careers is the new pathway for career progression and development6, then being comfortable and able to move with ease between the technical requirements of project assignment and consulting and the leadership requirements that are the core challenge of most organisational opportunities today will be a critical component of the journey of career success for many individuals today.
1Goldberg, Edie L., The Perfect Career Storm, White Paper, June 2010, p 3
3 Ibid., p 5
5 Stybel, Laurence J and Peabody, Maryanne, When Frames of reference Lag Perception: Managing Senior Careers in the First Ten years of the 21st Century, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 2007, Vol.59, No. 3, p 223
6 Ibid., p 225