Rethinking Career Management

People who want more out of their careers often pursue extrinsic rewards (such as money, status, power, etc.), but are left unfulfilled and wanting even more.  Rethinking traditional definitions of career success helps you develop your own unique definitions of success (see A Good Job).  Understanding what more means to you is important, but the other piece of the puzzle is figuring out how to get it.  In this regard, traditional career management falls short.


What do you want to be when you grow up?

Many of the ideas surrounding career management evolved during the same period as the ideas related to career success (roughly the end of WW II until the 1980s), an era characterized by relative career stability and predictability.  During this period, the recipe for successful career management went something like this.

  • Step 1.  Start with introspection and self-reflection to identify your passions (what’s your calling?).
  • Step 2.  Understand your abilities (what are you good at?).
  • Step 3.  Consider possible career options in light of your passions and abilities.
  • Step 4.  Mix everything together, shake vigorously, and viola!  Your ideal career is in finance (or sales or as an attorney or a nuclear physicist).
  • Step 5.  Build your long-term career plan (where do you want to be in 30 years?), and then work backwards to set well-defined intermediate goals.
  • Step 6.  Get an entry-level job in your chosen field, and work your way up the corporate ladder.
The problem is this recipe no longer works (some would argue it never really worked that well to begin with).

Like traditional wisdom regarding career success, traditional wisdom regarding career management is based on a set of assumptions that are fundamentally flawed.

  • Flawed assumption 1.  The job market is stable and predictable.  Long-term career planning works best in a stable environment, and today’s job market is anything but stable.  Things are changing too quickly.  Technology and globalization have created a hyperconnected world where change propagates faster than ever.  As a result, stable, linear careers have been replaced with chaotic careers.  When you have a chaotic system (like the weather, for example), it’s difficult to plan far into the future.
  • Flawed assumption 2.  We are aware of all possible job and career options.  There are more job and career choices today than ever, and it’s impossible to understand all of the options.  Most people have their heads down working hard, and they invest little time developing their career awareness.  In addition, there are important nuances within careers and jobs that are often overlooked.  Some careers in sales may require strong interpersonal skills and high energy while others may require thoughtful analysis and planning.
  • Flawed assumption 3.  We understand ourselves:  our abilities and our passions.  As Peter Drucker once said, “Most people think they know what they are good at.  They are usually wrong.”  Truly understanding our abilities and passions doesn’t happen overnight.  More typically, abilities and passions are revealed during the course of our careers.  Sometimes people have strengths that lie dormant for a long time.  Other times unique abilities are enabled and realized through new markets and new types of jobs.  Passions often start as interests that are nurtured and eventually lead to meaningful and impactful work.  Passion is usually not something that emerges from introspection.

If traditional career management is riddled with flawed assumptions and no longer useful, then what is?  How do we effectively manage our careers in a world characterized by rapid change, instability, and lack of perfect information about ourselves and career options?  How should we think and behave in this new environment?  Are there frameworks we can use, or has modern career management been relegated to the realm of luck?

Helen Harkness was the housewife of a physician in Dallas, Texas in the early 1970s.  After a divorce, Helen returned to school and earned a Ph.D., focusing directly on the subject of career change.  Dr. Harkness was perhaps the first to recognize the shortcomings of traditional career management and propose a new paradigm that incorporated aspects of disorder, chaos, and change.  She used her new insights to reinvent her own career, established a new company (Career Design Associates) based on her new model, and then published several useful books on her theory of chaos and careers.  But despite the pioneering work of Dr. Harkness over 30 years ago, traditional linear career thinking still dominates the public consciousness.  As Harkness has written, “The new model is unbelievably difficult for adults reared, perhaps unconsciously, to expect and revere a predictable, linear journey based on stability and certainty.”

Although others have followed in Harkness’ footsteps and recognized the limitations of traditional career wisdom, it’s hard to find pragmatic and actionable frameworks that embrace the realities of our current chaotic job market.   As career experts Robert Pryor and Jim Bright point out, “The failure of career development theory to provide a compelling and practical account of uncertainty is a major shortcoming because it directs focus to the probable and de-emphasizes the possible.”

Interestingly, some of the most useful insights for dealing with our new world of uncertainty and change have come not from career management but from other disciplines.


Think like an entrepreneur

In 1997, Dr. Saras Sarasvathy decided to research what she later referred to as the entrepreneurial method.  Successful entrepreneurs are well-known for succeeding in a world of instability, uncertainty, and lack of information.   Prior research into successful entrepreneurs had focused primarily on things like creativity, risk tolerance, personality, genetics, and even luck.   Sarasvathy wanted to find out if there was an underlying process that was common across successful entrepreneurs.  Were there specific things that successful entrepreneurs thought and did that led to their success?  It turns out there are.

Sarasvathy sought out entrepreneurs who met the following criteria:  at least 15 years of experience, started multiple companies, experienced success as well as failure, and had taken at least one company public.  She found 245 entrepreneurs that met her criteria, and she researched 45 of them in depth.

Here’s what she discovered.

  • Successful entrepreneurs didn’t try to predict the future.  They tried to create it.
  • Successful entrepreneurs didn’t set goals.  They started with who they were, what they knew, and who they knew.
  • Successful entrepreneurs focused on what they could do and they did it, without worrying much about what they ought to have done.
  • Successful entrepreneurs took small steps to minimize risk.
  • Successful entrepreneurs invited surprise, and they adapted and learned from the experience.
  • Successful entrepreneurs allowed relationships to influence their path.

Sarasvathy’s work provides us with powerful insights regarding how successful entrepreneurs deal with uncertainty, change, and limited information.  As it turns out, there is more that we can learn by studying entrepreneurs and startups.

Ash Maurya is a tech startup executive and the author of Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works.  In Ash’s words, startups that succeed start with a Plan A, and they iterate to a plan that works before running out of money.  In the context of career management, you start with Plan A, but Plan A seldom works.  So you have to iterate until you find a plan that does work.  Ash’s work in lean product development builds upon the work of Eric Ries and Steve Blank and has its roots in agile software development.  When I first started my career (as a software developer), software was created using the waterfall methodology.  Developers would define the product, and then go off and build it.  Some products would take months or even years to develop.  When the product was finally completed and released (many were scrapped prior to completion), the product seldom met users’ expectations.  Over time, software developers began to use agile software development methodologies based on iterative and incremental development.  They got feedback from users during the development process and used the feedback to develop a more useful product.  Today, some agile software developers release new versions of their products every day.  The cycle has been compressed from years to days, and the result has been better products.


Extreme career makeover

It should be obvious by now that traditional career management advice is not well-suited to dealing with today’s job market.  Career management needs an extreme makeover, one that is relevant to today’s job market, and one that leverages frameworks that embrace chaos, uncertainty, and change.

Here’s the new formula.

1 – Focus on what’s next

Instead of developing a 30-year career plan, focus on what’s next.  Instead of trying to predict the future, focus on optimizing your next job.  String together a series of successful jobs, and your career will take care of itself.  The careers of successful people are anything but predictable and linear.  Here’s the advice Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg offered the graduating class of Harvard Business School in May 2013.  Don’t plan too much, and don’t expect a direct climb.  If I had mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed my career.

2 – Start from where you are now

Instead of trying to determine your one true passion or calling, start from where you are now (what you can do well), and treat passion as a goal rather than your starting point.  Realize that it’s OK if you don’t have a specific career passion right now.  Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You:  Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, puts it this way, “If you want to love your work, get really good at something rare and valuable.  Passion comes after the hard work, not before it.”

3 – Learn, revise, and iterate

Instead of maniacally sticking to a predetermined plan, revise your plan as you go, and embrace the unexpected.  Treat each job as an iteration along your career path.  Learn more about yourself and your abilities.  Learn about the nuances of different careers.  Learn about industries and markets.  Learn and revise your definition of career success.  Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and the co-author of The Start-Up of You, offers this advice.  “Whatever the situation, actions, not plans, generate lessons that help you test your hypotheses against reality.  Actions help you discover where you want to go and how to get there.”

4 – Collect real data

Instead of relying on intuition, introspection, and reflection, get out of the office and collect some real data.  Reflection is often a good starting point, but it only takes you so far.  Effective career management mandates that you make a habit of getting out of the office, talking to people, and building relationships.  Develop your own sense of what’s going on in the market.  Some of the hottest companies, fastest-growing industries, and most disruptive innovations may not have existed the last time you looked for a job.  Understand how the market values your skills and abilities.  Don’t get caught “cheating at solitaire”, a metaphor Eric Sinoway uses to describe “the all-too-common occurrence of men and women telling themselves that they have the skills they wished they possessed to achieve certain professional goals — as opposed to objectively considering whether they actually do or do not.”


Agile Career Development

From my vantage point, the most useful insights and frameworks for modern career management emanate from the world of startups and entrepreneurs.  In that spirit, I refer to this new approach to career management as Agile Career Development.  In a world where stability is absent, where long-term planning doesn’t work, and where the job market is constantly changing, career agility is the new stability.

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