The turbulent workplace of the past decade has transformed traditional career paths fromorderly routes with predetermined destinations into flexible collections of experiences designed to acquire skills that build resilience and offer continuous growth.
Savvy careerists know to prepare for twists and turns and to expect the unexpected. The nonsavvy risk becoming frustrated when the unexpected occurs and too often fail to see the opportunities that can emerge from change.
A History of Career Paths
Career paths emerged in response to employees’ need for assistance in navigating through increasingly complex workplaces. New functions appeared, existing units merged and strategic focus shifted. Employees were finding it more difficult to identify viable routes to success.
Moreover, organizations invested time, energy and funds in formalizing logical paths based on a combination of organizational history and anticipated business direction. Paths were often prescriptive and came with an implied promise.
Employees translated that to mean successful completion of a series of steps, positions and coursework would result in arriving at the last stop on the path — a job. After all, that’s what a path does: It leads you to a predetermined destination.
Paths were intended to be guidelines for career management, but they came with some unintended side effects. Paths led some employees to adopt a “check the box” approach to career planning. The upward progression that defined most paths endorsed vertical, promotional moves as the career option of choice. The careerist who aspired to a nontraditional career experience could feel uninspired and disengaged with the development process.
Career paths have not disappeared. In fact, they’re everywhere. A simple search of “career paths” will produce hundreds of links offering everything from a series of highly specialized roles to a sequence of gradually expanding leadership jobs.
So are paths still useful? Yes, but a career path alone may not get individuals where they want and need to go.
Today’s workplace is more complicated. Employees sit time zones away from managers. Matrixed reporting relationships increase the size and variety of career audiences.
Project-based assignments offer unique and stand-alone experiences. Rotational programs and temporary assignments are plentiful and offer a wide range of growth opportunities. Organizational redesigns demand flexible career planning and pliable options.
Careers are still a series of experiences, roles, assignments and jobs. However, it is impossible to anticipate all the twists and turns that a modern career will take. A career that extends into 2025 and beyond will most likely be a combination of segments extracted from traditional paths, planned and unplanned stops, meaningful side trips and perhaps a few leaps of faith.
The savvy careerist examines theever-changing landscape and builds a pattern. A career pattern, not completely unplanned but certainly flexible, prepares the careerist to not just weather the occasional roadblock or detour but also to thrive on the changing landscapes and unexpected challenges.
Paths are fixed. Patterns are fluid. Paths were based on what was done before by others. Patterns are for employees to design. Patterns leave something to the imagination. Just as two career journeys will not be identical, neither will two patterns be a replica of one another.
To understand the career pattern approach, envision a kaleidoscope. When you look through the lens of a kaleidoscope, you see a pattern of shapes and colors. If you twist the outer cylinder even slightly, the pattern changes. A new combination of shapes and colors appears. Today’s careers are similar. Organizations evolve, industries shift and professions change focus. The careers that emerge either flex or become obsolete.
Flexible Career Patterns
Imagine driving along a curving country road, and around a bend, the road is blocked with a barricade and sign reading, “Road Closed.” A natural reaction is probably to search the side of the road for a detour sign and arrow. Or perhaps grab the phone to search for options from a GPS app.
A career pattern can offer options — detour signs — when a career experience is blocked or has disappeared. If the international assignment was awarded to someone else, then what equally enticing experiences are included in the career pattern that could be pursued instead for now? What learning was expected from the experience that could be obtained doing something else?
Employees may choose to change direction, or a change may choose them. When changes occur, a career pattern offers alternatives. Change may be an opportunity to redirect or rearrange the order of the planned experiences. Career patterns can be as detailed or as general as their owners — the employees — desire them to be.
The Pattern Partnership
Managers have always had a key role in career development. That role is as important today as it ever was, but the manner in which this role plays out in a career pattern is different. Managers will need to accelerate the new shift in the following ways:
Let go of control. The message that employees own their careers has been repeated often. Ownership comes with a responsibility to put forth the effort and energy to continue to grow. But ownership also builds an expectation that the individual will have some control.
Allow for flexible timelines. In today’s organization, it is folly to ask employees: “Where do you want to be in five years?” The rate of change in some industries makes predicting what roles will be available or appealing even next year an impossible task.
It’s up to employees to decide whether they want to plan for the next year or the next month. The savvy careerist examines options and sets expectations based on “What’s now?” as well as “What’s next?” Managers and organizations need to allow that latitude.
Think experiences, not positions. If careers are made up of experiences, then planning for a career is not a matter of drafting a list of potential future positions. When employees focus on the kinds of experiences they want from a career vs. the job, title or position, they open up a wide variety of possibilities.
Replace the question, “What role to you want to pursue?” with “What experiences will result in a career that you would find rewarding and meaningful?” Do employees want to lead people, start up a new unit, manage a group project or take on an assignment outside the current country of residence? Here’s where those traditional career paths can help.
Think of them as a travelogue. Look for what fits. Study them and search for ideas and options. There may be experiences described in a path that an employee will want to incorporate into the new career pattern.
Move from promises to purpose. The implied promise of a path — complete these steps and you will get that position — sets in motion some unrealistic expectations and can initiate or feed an entitlement culture. When employees identify the experiences they hope to include in their careers, the next important step is to put the experiences to the test.
Ask them to write the experiences they hope to have on flash cards, and identify a purpose for each one. Ask questions like, “What will you learn or gain from the experience?” or “How will each experience prepare you for the future or for the next experience?” Patterns with purpose are enticing and will include experiences they can’t avoid.
Focus on possibilities, not predictions. Paths provided predictability even though they were never meant to. Patterns provide possibilities and options. Paths are fixed. Patterns are fluid. Careerists who create patterns have options when change occurs.
Encourage employees to keep career patterns fresh and relevant. If an experience in the pattern is no longer enticing or important, it may be time to replace that experience with another that will provide a greater opportunity to learn. Help them consider which experiences come before others and which ones provide skill-building that can be used as they move through the pattern.
Share stories. Experience is said to be the best teacher, but even the most comprehensive career pattern can’t offer every experience. Employees learn from the career experiences of others, and a great place to start is with a story.
Share stories from successes and mistakes and ones that reveal major turning points, lessons and inspirations. Managers should share stories that talk about a job that forced new thinking. Encourage employees to ask leaders about their career journeys. The stories they hear will reveal a wide variety of routes. Rarely is a career a straight, uninterrupted series of ladderlike steps.
Owner’s Role: the Employee
Like a kaleidoscope, the beauty of a career pattern is in the eye of the beholder. Career patterns are owned, managed and nurtured by the employee. Only the owner knows what personal and professional success will look like for them. Only the owner knows how much or how little they plan to commit to achieving their success. And only the owner can make a pattern come to life.
Creating a career pattern starts with coming up with answers in three areas:
- Experiences: What experiences do I want to have during my career? Who can I watch? Who can I talk to? Who has had a career I want? How can I do that?
- Purpose: What will I learn or gain through each experience? How will what I learn serve me in the future?
- Plan: How will I move between the experiences? How can my experiences build? What should come first?
Paths needed managing. Patterns need to be managed, too. As Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Employees must decide where to begin, and then look for routes to take to bridge from experience to experience.
Here are six tips for managing a career pattern:
- Redirect: If the hoped-for experience is not available right now or the timing is just not right, redirect to an alternative experience immediately. Don’t waste time stewing over it — find experiences that have a similar purpose.
- Refine: Often something is learned from an experience that was not expected. Examine how accidental learning might refine or reshape one or more future opportunities. Patterns can be refined to fit and tailored to leverage new knowledge.
- Recycle or Replace: Sometimes an experience that seemed meaningful and full of opportunities yesterday becomes less important. Recycle it. Toss it out. Replace it with an experience that is more relevant or inviting.
- Refresh: Pursuing experiences that are no longer enticing results in an unproductive pattern. Patterns should be refreshed regularly to see if they still inspire commitment. Tying a pattern refresh to something easily remembered — maybe when clocks are reset for daylight savings or even a birthday — can ensure a refresh occurs.
- Rearrange: Several factors influence the sequence in which experiences are pursued. The first is drive, commitment and choices. The order in which pattern experiences happen need to make sense for the owner. Second, careers will not happen in a vacuum. Outside forces often determine what opportunities are available and when. The savvy careerist stays in tune with what’s happening in the organization and industry. If a change or shift occurs that places an experience front and center, it’s important to not allow the opportunity to pass. Rearranging the pattern to take advantage of the timing can make all the difference.
- Rejoice: Celebrating the successes — the experiences that turn out to be awesome, and even the occasional stumble, the experience that teaches so much — makes the pattern a rich resource of energy and accomplishment.
The workplace landscape is changing so quickly that no sooner do we map it than our map is out of date. Savvy careerists — individuals who commit to designing, pursuing and living career patterns that are their own — and managers who encourage and guide them are leading the way in this new approach to careers.
It’s easy to spot stellar employees — they obey the rules, think before they act and are meticulous about communications. But what if your best employees are inadvertently hurting productivity far more than many of your “troublemakers”?
It’s likely. We know this because we’ve read the U.S. Government’s (declassified) “Simple Sabotage Field Manual.” Written during World War II by the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, this volume has an entire section devoted to the subtle destruction of an organization’s performance from within.
The tactics included all look like good behaviors —doing things through channels and urging colleagues to avoid haste, for example. But these behaviors turn from good to bad when they’re taken just a little too far — either deliberately, as the OSS intended, or inadvertently, as is commonly the case today.
Odds are your organization has a fair share of unwitting saboteurs at work right now, unintentionally creating circumstances that make it very difficult for people to be productive. In “Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting and Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace,” we explore this phenomenon in detail. Here are four of the most damaging behaviors that bring productivity and efficiency to a halt.
1. Sabotage by obedience.
“Insist on doing everything through ‘channels.’ Never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions,” said the OSS tactic.
We agree channels are important, but formal structures inadvertently cause damage as soon as they prevent an employee’s sound personal judgment from overriding a process that is not working in the moment.
Suppose a client is balking at a new contract, but the senior manager who holds the authority to approve a change is away. The manager knows the senior manager would be fine with the change. However, they say, “I can’t help you; that would violate company policy,” thus committing sabotage by obedience.
One antidote to this kind of sabotage is overhauling the company’s rules. Some may be obsolete, and others may be unnecessarily restrictive. Another antidote is determining when certain rules can be “bent” and letting employees know whether any given policy should be considered a strong guideline, rather than an ultimatum.
2. Sabotage by committee.
“When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration.’ Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five,” the OSS manual advises.
Committees keep a company running smoothly because they allow the major streams of daily work to continue, while creating space to focus on special issues. The problem is that committees are often too big, poorly directed and lack a clear charter — a goal, a deadline and an agreed-upon process. Instead, the people involved will spend a lot of time and effort to spend a lot of time and effort, with very little time doing any purposeful work.
The remedy is straightforward: Keep these groups as lean as possible, and make sure that each individual on the committee understands exactly why they are there, what they’re supposed to do and by when.
3. Sabotage by irrelevant issues.
“Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible,” the manual said.
Engaged employees might bring up irrelevant issues during meetings out of a genuine desire to ensure that the topic on the table is being thoroughly vetted. Suppose, for example, that a competitor has recently gone out of business. Your organization, which is doing well, is about to spend a lot of money on a new marketing campaign. But at a meeting focused on honing the details of the campaign, a group member starts talking about that ill-fated competitor’s final months. The topic is interesting and could potentially hold lessons for your organization, but it’s not the right time and place for that discussion.
The fix for this kind of sabotage is to be sure that the focus and goal of the meeting are very clear at the outset. Then, if someone raises an unexpected issue, the meeting’s leader can quickly ask that person to clarify how that issue is directly related to the meeting’s desired outcome. Don’t be afraid to say, “Let’s talk about that later. We need to focus on this right now.”
4. Sabotage by CC: Everyone.
Although this sabotage tactic is too modern to be in the original manual, we feel this method of organizational destruction would be included now. It would have read: “CC: Everyone. Send updates as frequently as possible, continually increasing the distribution list to anyone even peripherally involved.”
Good employees know that communication is very important. But well-meaning people often mistake the “CC” option for a guarantee that everyone is truly informed, and therefore implicated in the responsibility for whatever decisions or actions that result from the email chain. The result is that people are drowning in a tsunami of inbound information, and they spend far too much time trying to decipher the signal from the noise —time that should be spent on focused, purposeful work.
Prevent this sabotage by following these guidelines (and asking everyone in the organization to do the same):
- Take yourself off distribution lists you don’t need to be on.
- Ask to be informed personally when you need to know something.
- Let senders know that if they don’t receive a response, they cannot assume that you are in the loop, or that your silence constitutes approval of decision or action.
- Make sure your email subject lines include information about pending deadlines or required responses.
- Push back against the “creep” of a culture that favors communicating by device over communicating in person. Pick up the phone, schedule video conferences and meet face-to-face.
Rooting out inadvertent sabotage isn’t a one-and-done effort. It’s also not easy. However, successfully combatting this kind of sabotage is worth your ongoing vigilance. The rewards of a high-functioning work environment are great.
Unicorns, Atlantis and work-life balance: What do these three things have in common?
They’re three of the most ridiculous myths I’ve ever heard of.
Right now you might be thinking, “This woman is off her rocker. She founded a professional staffing firm based on work flex. Why is she saying it's a myth?” Allow me to explain.
There’s a huge difference between work-life balance and work-life flexibility. It’s like the difference between a unicorn and a horse. Or between Atlantis and Machu Picchu.
- For starters, the term “balance” implies a 50-50 split (and we all know that’s a myth). For most of us, the time scale definitely tips in favor of work. In fact, this Gallup poll indicates that the average workweek has expanded to 47 hours (and that many professionals work 10 or more hours per week beyond this average).
- It also assumes that employees’ work and life are distinct elements. Technology has transformed the traditional 9-to-5 into a 24/7 workday. Work life is bleeding into home life, blurring boundaries and making it harder for people to truly disconnect: A survey from the American Psychological Association found that more than half of people check work messages before and after work, over the weekend and while home sick. Nearly half (44 percent) stay connected while on vacation.
- Finally, the term “balance” gives equal importance to the work and nonwork components of people’s lives. For most of your team, however, nonwork elements can be much more important than job responsibilities. (If your spouse was suddenly hospitalized and you had a big presentation to give, which would be more important to attend to?)
So, is your employees’ pursuit of a reasonable work schedule, as well as time for a real personal life and sleep (don’t forget about sleep), a waste of time? Absolutely not.
You just need to change your approach. Instead of encouraging your team to achieve “balance,” help them achieve greater work-life flexibility and satisfaction. Here’s how to do it:
Focus on results and productivity — not hours logged.
Hours worked does not necessarily correspond to efficiency. In fact, research from Stanford University shows that productivity diminishes significantly for workweeks that are more than 48 hours, and that employees who work beyond that are more likely to make dangerous and costly mistakes.
Furthermore, true professionals hate being micromanaged. So don’t do it. Create a sound framework for flexibility by giving your employees well-defined goals and a clear plan for achieving them. Then, evaluate individuals’ effectiveness based on the results they produce — not how many hours they put in or where they complete work.
Address cultural issues.
Companies that build a culture of flexibility attract better talent, experience less turnover and enjoy greater productivity, creativity and innovation. But building the right culture isn’t easy. To make sure you’re really “walking the walk”:
- Obtain buy-in at all levels. Make sure everyone from the receptionist to the CEO understands the benefits flex work offers, as well as the operational and managerial changes required to take work-life flexibility from concept to execution.
- Keep your options open. Consider which flexibility initiatives are the most practical for your organization and will lead to the greatest gains in satisfaction.
- Start small. Any culture change takes consistent sustained effort. Focus on implementing one flexibility initiative at a time.
Help employees define what work-life flexibility really means to them. Ideas vary from person to person, role to role and among genders. Once employees clarify their priorities, find ways to shape work so that it increases satisfaction both inside and outside your organization:
- Experiment with shorter workweeks. Compressing the week (working four 10-hour days, for instance) or reducing the total number hours worked can deliver tremendous gains in satisfaction.
- Offer telecommuting options. Provide the technology, resources and training professionals need to be productive at home or work.
- Tame technology and expectations. According to WorkplaceTrends’ 2015 Workplace Flexibility Study, 65 percent of employees say their managers expect them to be on call even when they’re “off the clock.” Set limits on when, where and how employees are to be accessible.
- Try “homing at work.” Giving employees the flexibility to take care of personal needs while at the office is one of the best ways to improve work-life satisfaction. Allow them to check off a few personal tasks (little things like setting appointments, running personal errands after lunch, or just buying something online) during the workday. When they’re able to check off these tasks, they experience less mental clutter and anxiety — and are actually able to focus better on work.
One of the challenges we face in HR is establishing credibility. It’s this behind the “seat at the table” conversation that has dominated HR discussions the past 20 years. It’s behind the “should we get rid of/divide/reorganize HR entirely.”
Our efforts to get that seat at the table lead to assertions like “HR’s role is to drive business results.” While on the surface, this seems to make sense, in reality it hinders our ability to establish the credibility we so eagerly seek.
First, what does it mean to “drive business results?” It means increasing revenue, market share, innovation, profitability or other financial metrics. Tell the CFO that HR “drives” those results, and you reinforce the suspicion executives already have that HR doesn’t know what it’s talking about. Sure, HR provides support around many facets of the organization — but that, in leaders’ view, isn’t “driving results.”
Rather than argue the point, let’s focus on what it means to be a member of the supporting cast. It's not HR's job to drive business results any more than it’s a casting director’s job to deliver great reviews for a play. It's HR's job to make sure the right people are in place.
To be sure, this is hard work. To succeed, HR has to be deeply embedded in the business to understand what the "right people" are for different roles. It has to be knowledgeable enough about the business to challenge leaders during workforce and organization changes. It has to be knowledgeable enough about human psychology, data-driven decision making and change management to hold leaders accountable when they rely on gut instinct over analysis in talent management.
When HR is successful in all these areas, the people whose job it is to drive business results are the right people with the right skills working in the right roles toward the right results.
Should HR covet the so-called “seat at the table,” or should the function be satisfied with its ever-important supportive role?
The United States is beginning to look more like Nottingham, the fictional town where Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor — except the outlaw is nowhere to be found.
In the face of rising income inequality in the U.S.,a study released in October in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found wealthy people are less generous in areas where income inequality is higher or perceived to be that way.
Researchers surveyed 704 people and asked them various questions related to wealth distribution after telling them there was either stable or highly unequal income distribution where they lived. The results showed wealthy individuals were less likely to participate in charitable donations or give to the poor in areas of higher inequality.
“Where income is more concentrated in the hands of fewer people, higher-income individuals may come to compare themselves more favorably to the general population,” researchers wrote. “Feeling entitled may in turn reduce the generosity of higher-income individuals living in highly unequal areas because people who believe they are more important than others also believe that resources rightfully belong to them.”
The income gap between the superwealthy and everyday Americans has grown considerably in the past 50 years. Executive pay has ballooned to 296 times that of the average employee, according to 2013 research from the Economic Policy Institute. In 1965, CEO compensation was 20 times greater than the average worker’s.
Additionally, the top 10 percent of households own 77 percent of income, according to 2013 data from the Pew Research Center; the top 1 percent possessed more than one-third of total household income that year.
Economists and business executives are divided on how to close the gap. Some CEOs —such as Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett —argue for higher taxes on the wealthy and closing tax loopholes that some use to avoid higher tax rates.
Others disagree with Buffet — such as Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump — and believe instituting economic policies that promote free-market growth will raise income levels for everybody.
In a 2013 address, President Obama called income inequality “the defining challenge of our time,” and the issue has become a rallying cry for many 2016 presidential hopefuls. But until an effective solution is implemented, lower-income families might as well hope for Robin Hood to swing by with a bag of gold coins.
Joe Dixon is a Diversity Executive editorial intern. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.