Not one but multiple careers, perhaps in different roles and different industries, are what the workers and managers of today can expect. By Leon Gettler
Careers are not what they used to be. “Jobs for life” are now but a memory; the linear career in which workers and managers climb the ladder rung by rung is over. The model is now more like basketball: players move forwards, backwards, laterally or just take time out as their careers veer in unexpected directions.
Taking a job then repositioning yourself for your next move is the new game plan. Money and power are no longer the sole motivation driving people’s careers. It’s now just as much about freedom, job satisfaction, and the chance to make a difference. Studies show that after leaving school, graduates on average will have seven careers. It’s not just about the sheer amount of choice, either. Nor is it just about people discovering that they have skills in new areas. Other forces are at work: the new shape of organisations, training, demographics, economic pressures, outsourcing, retrenchments and the search for work/life balance.
Roads now travelled
- Studies show that after leaving school, graduates on average will have seven different careers.
- New forces shaping careers: organisational change, economic pressures, demographics, retrenchment, work/life balance
For the individual manager and employees, the questions are more basic: How do you get into or re-enter a workforce in flux? How do you climb a ladder that has no rungs?
This creates new challenges for organisations. Many people no longer aspire to be managers. They want to be movers and shakers. So companies now have to show that job offers add value for the individual as well as the organisation. The result is that management is being broken into new and enchanting roles, from chief information officer to category innovation director. For the individual manager and employees the questions are more basic: how do you get into or re-enter a workforce in flux? How do you climb a ladder that has no rungs?
Of course, there is nothing new about career reinvention and uncertainty. Paul Gauguin quit his career as a stockbroker and fled to Tahiti to be a painter, and Sigmund Freud was a neurobiologist before he developed psychoanalysis. Back in the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer worked as a controller of Customs. Poet and Nobel Laureate T.S. Eliot worked in a bank until he was 37, and renowned Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley did not publish her first book until her early 50s. The list goes on, because life itself is unpredictable.
Emerging trends have made things more fluid by wiping out the old boundaries:
- More mobility, as employees jump across employers and careers, and even within organisations. Demarcations between employees, contractors, temps, casuals, customers and clients are blurring. For example, activities done in-house might be outsourced to a contractor, then might be brought back in-house, with the vendor. becoming an employee. Or an employee with an idea might leave the company, then return as a contractor providing a service to the company and to other organisations.
- Emerging forms of enterprise culture. John Hunt, professor of organisational behavior at London Business School, has identified new groups of wealth creators, including whiz-kids; intrapreneurs in spin-offs set up to revitalise a business; redundants, who take a package to start their own business; and downshifters, who quit corporate life to become sole traders (see next story below).
- Ageing populations putting pressure on pension schemes. To resolve this urgent problem, the top priority in the developed world is now to increase employment rates of older workers.
- “Portfolio careers”and the rise of project management. More people now create their own career paths, even setting themselves up as “brands” that they can market to corporations.
- Women deferring marriage and children to focus on their careers and businesses.
- Blurring of boundaries between work and non-work life. Personal and family reasons are more important in determining career choice.
- Work as meaning. Jobs and organisations are now seen as expressions of identity and deeply held values.
Organisational psychologist and careers coach Glenda May says most organisations and job seekers struggle to recognise the importance of the last point.
When she screens applicants, most of them focus on job needs: skills, ability, experience, qualifications. They ignore values. What do you enjoy doing the most? What gives you the biggest buzz? When was the last time you were thrilled by your work? When do you feel you are making a difference?
Some organisations recognise this. May cites one information technology company that uses five interviews to screen job applicants. The first one focuses on knowhow, qualifications and experience. The other four are about values. That company, however, is one of the few exceptions.
Part of the problem is that values are fuzzy; many struggle to get their heads around them. For some, the approach could lie in experimenting with different side projects and activities that might have nothing to do with day-to-day work. Bob Slater, a former lieutenant-colonel in the regular army who progressed to the rank of brigadier in the army reserve, tried that and discovered alternative forms of serving the public.
“Whatever I was working in for pay, I was doing volunteer work in my own time and putting feelers out,” Slater says. “During my time in the army, I was also doing work for organisations like Legacy and schools. All that time I was thinking ‘Is this what I would like to end up doing’.”
When he left the army, his experience in community work landed him a job managing an aged-care organisation and taking it through an extensive restructuring. He now works as community relations manager for the Smith Family.
Herminia Ibarra, professor of organisational behavior at INSEAD business school in France, has developed a similar model that seems to turn on its head everything that career specialists have told us. In her latest book, Working Identity (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), Ibarra argues that change does not come about by knowing what we want to do next and then using that knowledge to guide our actions. Ibarra says change usually happens the other way around – doing first, and knowing second.
“It is nearly impossible to think out how to reinvent ourselves, and, therefore, it is equally hard to execute in a planned and orderly way,” she writes.
“A successful outcome hinges less on knowing one’s inner, true self at the start than on starting a multi-step process of envisioning and testing possible futures. No amount of self-reflection can substitute for the direct experience we need to evaluate alternatives according to criteria that change as we do.”
Where we end up often surprises us, and that is why we cannot plan and program reinvention, Ibarra says. Indeed, it has nothing to do with knowing exactly who we are, because nobody is just one self. We have many aspects to our selves and nobody simply trades in the old self for a new one or upgrades to Version 2. Reinvention means living through a period of transition in which we rethink and reshape possibilities.
It also means ditching what Ibarra calls the old “plan and implement” model of career development. Under this model, the career champion follows a series of clean, logical steps: matching interests and skills with professions and industries; developing at least two different tracks of ideas; going out into the market for a reality check by reading, networking and joining professional groups; homing in on a career target and developing a path to get there. In short, the model is about reflecting, then acting. Think, then do.
According to Ibarra, however, careers are about doing exactly the opposite. Do first, and the rest will follow. She proposes stepping out first, trying different paths, then using the feedback to figure out what we think, feel and want. This means thinking in terms of side projects and temporary assignments, and also varying these experiments to compare and contrast. Instead of trying to find our true selves, we should focus attention on the many facets of ourselves that we want to explore and test.
It means allowing ourselves to go through periods of turmoil, confusion and uncertainty as we move from the old to the new. She proposes that instead of making big decisions that will change everything, we should take small steps. This is because almost no one gets change right on the first try. It entails finding models who represent what we want to be and who can provide support. It also means standing back very occasionally to assess the landscape, without staying out of it for too long.
This type of approach needs time. Big career transitions, Ibarra says, take three to five years. They are also messy and they are seldom quick and easy. Letting go of something is difficult when we have invested so much of our time, training and hard work – and it is even more difficult when the alternatives are fuzzy.
“We move forward without clearly defined destinations, and we gather the courage to leave behind activities and relationships that have been central to how we define ourselves.” Ibarra says.
“The in-between period is the crucible in which we bring our possible selves tentatively into the world. Unpleasant as it may be, we short-circuit it at our own peril.”
In a sense, it is a process similar to the difficulties people face going through personal transitions, when one is stuck in the old world and tentatively dipping a toe into the waters of the new. These crises happen all the time to many people, from leaving a religious order to getting a divorce. “Becoming an ex”, as one sociological study called it, means going through a period of anxiety and fear, and feeling at a loose end as if one does not belong anywhere.
It also means not just living through paradox but embracing it. This is the toughest job of all, but ambiguity is the nub of management itself. As Charles Handy points out in his book The Age of Paradox: “Paradox can only be ‘managed’ in the sense of coping with, which is what management had always meant until the term was purloined to mean planning and control.”
The other point is that career paths, even in the one sector, are different. Everyone has a different approach. Some quit their jobs to take time out to determine what to do next. Others do it with a rough road map in mind. Some stay until they have no alternative but to leave, and others have change foisted on them by events like getting sacked, or a bad performance review. Ibarra found that women are more likely to take time out to reinvent themselves. And professionals including lawyers, consultants, accountants and academics have an easier time finding new areas, largely because they have more autonomy and tend to deal more with the outside world, in the form of clients and members of the same profession.
Managers, on the other hand, find transitions difficult because they are bogged down in the detail of meetings, schedules and day-to-day work. Managers, more than any other group, need the time to stop, rest and refuel. Executive education courses are crucial here because they get managers out of the office and shake things up by encouraging them to look at the world differently. The activity of business schools is counter-cyclical – enrolments and applications go up in tough times as managers and employees realise that they need extra skills, possibly to reinvent themselves.
Applications for MBA courses have soared at Australia’s top business schools. Applications for 2003 were up 7% at the Australian Graduate School Management. Enrolments were down slightly but this has been attributed to expectations that the economy would pick up this year.
Furthermore, the students are getting older. Four years ago, the average age of MBA students at the AGSM was 26; now the average is about 30. There has been a 20% rise in applications at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management, although offers are down 25% because of a tightening of criteria.
But there are limits. As Ibarra points out, executive training programs seldom involve enough time away to awaken a desire for change. This is why managers often resort to other tactics: sabbaticals, “chunking up” annual leave or just jumping.
Bruce Abbott, managing director of the global headhunting firm Boyden, says the hardest to move on are those who have been at a company too long. They lack networks and tend to work in strategy – more shapers than line managers.
But the key, as always, is balance. “It’s a safer bet if you have good, rounded people in an organisation. But you also need depth of expertise.” Abbott says. “You don’t want people so rounded that they just roll over.”
This is why an individual’s training, education and career development is always a “work in progress”. Some things have no definite end or guaranteed answer. Therein lies the paradox of management.
Career Confidence Index
- In a global survey 77% of Australians say it would be somewhat or very difficult for most sacked employees to find comparable work at the same pay.
- Just over 20% of Australian workers say there is a possibility that they will lose their job in the next 12 months, the fifth-highest figure of all countries surveyed.
Source: Right Management Consultants.
Getting off the merry-go-round
Research is looking at why growing numbers of employees are opting to leave the corporate world.
By Kristin Owen
- From 1997-98 to 2000-01 the number of small businesses rose 2.7%, according to the Bureau of Statistics.
- As at June 2001, 14% of small businesses had operated for less than a year, 35% for one to five years, and 19% for five to 10 years.
- In the past 10 years, 23% of Australians aged 30 to 59 sacrificed income for a more balanced lifestyle.
“Ol’ blue eyes” inspired a generation with the song My Way. But it seems a growing number are not just enjoying the music but have taken the lyrics as advice for life.
Statistics show that increasing numbers of wage slaves are leaving the corporate world and setting up their own concerns.
From 1997-98 to 2000-01, the number of Australian small businesses rose 2.7%, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
As at June 2001, 14% of small businesses had operated for less than a year, 35% for one to five years and 19% for five to 10 years. And 67% of all small businesses are home-based.
A report by The Australia Institute provides an interesting context for these figures: in the past 10 years, 23% of Australians aged 30 to 59 have sacrificed income for the sake of a different lifestyle.
The Canberra-based Public Policy Research Centre’s Downshifting in Australia: A Sea-change in the Pursuit of Happiness, defined downshifters as people who had made a voluntary, permanent change in which they earned and spent less so as to achieve more balanced lives.
One such corporate deserter is small-business owner Marianne Snaidero, 37. Snaidero had climbed the corporate ladder at the car importer Volkswagen Australia, before taking maternity leave.
At her peak, Snaidero was national parts and accessories sales manager for Audi and Volkswagen, responsible for pricing, shipping, distribution and implementing the marketing program for her business unit.
However, thoughts beyond this environment were in the background. “I did not want the corporate life. I spent my life on a plane away from home. Having a family was important for me. I know that in corporate life families generally come second.”
At Volkswagen, Snaidero achieved budgets of $30 million: “If I could do this for someone else, what could I achieve in my own business?”
She now has a Mortgage Choice franchise in Sydney and two children. Her husband has joined her business after a career in sales.
“When you work for yourself, you can be flexible. I help with reading at my son’s kinder, and if there is something important on at school, I try to make myself available. I can do that and not feel guilty. I do not have to ask the boss. It makes all the difference to your quality of life.”
Australians are not the only downshifters. A US survey found that 19% of respondents had decided to reduce their incomes and consumption. The Australia Institute report says the most important reason for downshifting is to spend more time with family. A desire for a healthier lifestyle and greater personal fulfilment are also important.
Downshifting doesn’t always mean a pay cut. Some people make changes, such as reducing work hours or switching to a less demanding job, that allow them to leave the corporate realm and maintain their income.
Business strategist Verity Byth worked with IBM then, KPMG. Now joint director of the National Centre for Customer Strategy and co-author of I-Cons: The Essential Guide to Winning and Keeping High-Value Customers (Random House), she has noticed a change in attitudes.
“A woman I worked with recently spent three years overseas. She returned to Australia and wanted a job in the corporate world. She put out feelers among her friends and former colleagues and everyone responded: ‘Don’t bother; everybody else wants to get out. Why do you want to get in?’
“There are so many examples of women leaving the corporate world and doing very nicely that it is unusual to see someone who has had that experience wanting to go back.”
So, why the exodus? “Life in corporate Australia in the past few years has been pretty grim. “There are far fewer resources and opportunities for professional development. There’s more accountability with less support, and our exposure to international economic conditions makes it quite tough.
Byth says that with your own business you are in control and the rewards are greater. There is a clear connection between effort and reward. When you expand your business, you know it is entirely your own doing.