A few years back, the CEO of a large consumer product multinational’s Indian operation addressed a group of young managers. He wanted to know how many of the managers intended to be in the company 5 years hence and 10 years hence. At 5 years, approximately 10% of hands went up. The proportion dropped even lower at 10 years.
The word ‘career’ originally meant a short gallop by a horse (in the 16th century). Over time, it has come to mean a continuous course of action or progress, typically in one’s chosen profession. Not so long ago, many people’s notion of a career was to join an aspirational company, and rise to the top of that company through a lifetime of persistence, professionalism and personal development.
There are many reasons why the notion of career is changing significantly today. The young manager entering the workplace has different expectations and aspirations. He/she expects to be managed in a far less hierarchical way. (This is often a reflection of the fact that he has been parented far less hierarchically than his parents were). He wants opportunities to exercise responsibility early. He is entering a workplace that is itself far less linear and far more unpredictable, and there are very few companies that can credibly guarantee twenty years of job security to even their best performers.
Companies would still want employees with longevity, who can learn and grow with the company. The challenge is this: It is difficult to predict what organizational structures and functions will look like five years into the future. Many jobs can be displaced by technology, the line between functions can blur, and hence a career plan which talks about a ten to fifteen year journey as a functional specialist, moving to functional leadership and then general management, may be akin to approaching the future through a considered view of the rear view mirror.
How should today’s management professional prepare for a career in this changing context? How do you know that your job and skills will not be irrelevant tomorrow? We try to offer a few simple pointers.
Having two strings to your bow: Essentially, many people have multiple passions. If you look for opportunities to express more than one of those passions at work, it will create new opportunities for you and give the organisation a less ‘one dimensional ‘ view of you. This could be event management, design, the ability to design processes, envisaging digital transformation etc. Often, this practically means putting your hand up for interesting cross functional projects and the willingness to socialise beyond silos. It also means keeping at least one passion alive outside the workplace.
Take charge of your own learning: This implies having a strategic view of your organisation. What skills will the organisation require to succeed in the next five years? What new skills will the organizations value? Which of your personal strengths and passions are geared toward these skills? How might you strengthen these skills? Often, this will imply a plan of reading, investment in short term courses, and opting to volunteer for relevant projects. The important point is that the pace and direction of your learning cannot be left to the organization. You are responsible for your own learning.
Identifying and exploiting second curves: Originally derived from the world of technology and product development, Charles Handy has extended the concept of a second curve to careers. A skill, technology or new product grows in importance and proficiency through individual effort and experience. The growth tapers off and the curve flattens as the skill peaks out. The way to stay relevant is to identify a ‘second curve’ which is valuable and work on it before the skill flattens out. The second curve could involve a new skill or an augmented skill, crucially, it involves the ability to experiment while one is still successful.
Do not leave a company for the wrong reasons : If you are learning, growing, performing, identify with the values of the company, do not leave a company for boss or money alone. A bad boss will not survive for long in a good company; the challenge is that the bad boss may convert good employees to frustrated cynics. The ability to survive a bad boss is crucial; experience of many companies suggests that among five high performers at middle level, one of the most critical long term differentiators is staying power.
A positive filter on disruption: Disruption has been largely projected as technologically led, and threatening to jobs and careers. History suggests that each disruption creates new opportunities, and people who are quick to embrace change often are at the forefront of new industries. If you are able to stay curious, willing to experiment, learn and fail, and retain a sense of curiosity and openness, every disruption will offer the chance to ride a new curve of personal growth.
In summary, careers of tomorrow may revert to a modified 16th century view of a series of short, interlinked gallops. Originally, horses were directed by riders (read companies) into a set of well defined potential paths. Today, the horse must set its own path. Companies (or governments and institutions) may create alternative paths, but they will no longer be in charge.