The New Shape of Work: Why the Only Way Up is No Longer Up

Any credible career should follow an uninterrupted, upward trajectory, or so the assumption goes. Many hiring organizations, executive search firms and leadership candidates still exercise this kind of ‘up or out’ thinking.

Yet a growing number of successful executives are seriously questioning What’s Next.

The prospect of ‘more of the same’ is unappealing, and for different reasons. For millennials, the ‘career for life’ is becoming an irrelevance, and many corporates no longer offer one. Many senior leaders peak at the age of 50 and feel pressured to climb a mountain that no longer interests them – a pressure compounded by the rise of the retirement age in many markets.

New Shape Of Work

The New Mantras of Career Design

Irrespective of their age, fear can close the mind of many executives to alternative opportunities: sacrificing status (and status symbols), kissing goodbye to deferred financial incentive schemes, an erosion of one’s very identity. The expectations of the personal and professional entourage can be a further barrier to creativity and freedom.

Compounding the difficulty of escaping the vertical paradigm is the ‘either/or’ career thinking imprinted on the minds of many executives. Either I must freelance, the narrative goes, or join - or found - a start-up. The alternative is to remain trapped in the corporate birdcage, assuming I continue to have a place in it.

But there is hope, and help, in the form of an emerging corporate culture in which a firm expects to benefit from staff who demand to explore their capacity for growth. To provide a fertile space for personal development and watch it germinate a fulfilled workforce, with higher productivity. Executives, too, are changing their perceptions.

It’s possible to see a healthy schizophrenia in the modern career trajectory. Career shapes appear to be gradually morphing, with hybrids increasingly becoming the new norm. Some even take on multiple aspects over time - a linear route, steeped in expertise and ambition to reach the top, can branch out into a lateral shape: a series of sideways steps within an organization, and with wider experience become multi-lateral: a series of shorter term roles, even exercized in tandem. And the digital disruption causing so much industry reinvention is rippling through career design in a way that’s exciting the millennial generation in particular.

That’s the theory, now for some praxis. If you are an executive seeking a fresh approach to your career, or a talent strategist seeking to revitalize your organizational approach, read on.

Designing your career

  1. Make your sense of purpose, ethical principles, values, and what makes you happy and able to perform, your overarching goals.
  2. Build your own sustainability into your career equation.
  3. Ensure you know - and share - the values of any organization you work for or with. Check to what extent those values are really lived by the organization.
  4. Know your key talents (and limits) - and dare to explore.
  5. Give yourself permission to think differently in your career approach – lateral, multi-lateral as well as vertical.
  6. Check to what extent the needs and expectations of your close entourage may be influencing your choices.
  7. Be your own ‘DIY talent strategist’ – don’t wait for a corporate menu.
  8. Be a sensemaker for yourself and others: build your career narrative and personal brand, finding the red thread. An external, objective eye can help; a coach or other trusted advisor.
  9. Take your time to find the matching role – or roles. Expect your vision to sharpen over time.
  10. Reflect and develop, reflect and develop, and repeat ad infinitum.

Designing your organization

  1. Prepare for external candidates seeking a lateral or multi-lateral career.
  2. Think ‘building site’ – relish creative mess and disruption.
  3. Build talent strategy on cutting-edge HRM expertise - and a strong Nominations Committee.
  4. Ensure your talent strategists embrace the lateral and multi-lateral.
  5. To be a game-changer, view senior-level hires like real estate investments: for ‘location’ read ‘personality’, with potential just as important as track record.
  6. Co-create values, ensuring the closest possible fit between those of the organization and its key talent.
  7. Mission, Adaptability, Involvement and Consistency: consider the 4 culture traits and how to integrate atypical career paths in your architecture and values.
  8. Be transparent about the talent your organization really needs, so high potentials can identify new opportunities.
  9. Cultivate a fear of missing out rather than a fear of failure
  10. Prepare for Leaders For What’s Next – turned on by dynamic imperfection and by organizations who frankly admit they don’t know it all.

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