An Intelligent Career Model for the 21st Century – by James Parsons

This is the first in a series of thought pieces where Miramar’s James Parsons will describe a model of the self-managing that professionals will need to adopt in a changing world.

Careers advice historically helps clients do things like create a barnstorming CV, practise to ace an interview, develop mind blowing propositions or build a 30″ sales pitch – as if they were simply goals to knock over.  We increasingly think goals alone are sufficient.  A focus on goals doesn’t seem to work that well in today’s volatile world which is why much careers advice isn’t worth getting.  So instead of goals, adopt a systems approach.

Most of us started our careers much like balls in a pinball machine, fired with great speed and purpose from education only to find ourselves hit a bunch of unidentified obstacles, set off bells, pick up some knocks and land somewhere miles from where we thought we would.  This realisation can be particularly revealing for senior people 20 years into their careers, often when they reach out to people like us.

Ways in which careers develop has changed hugely in the last thirty years.  Rare now are traditional linear careers, where you climbed the corporate ladder, implicitly trusting that the system would reward you with a secure job to retirement, a pension and financial security.  “Expert” careers have better stood the test of time, where scientists, doctors, musicians, lawyers and other specialists followed journeys where they continued to hone their skills, seeing their increasing expertise and rarity rewarded commensurately.

More recently, other career patterns have emerged in response to changing working dynamics, technology and social norms.  The model illustrated below, adopted from Driver & Larson’s original career concept model, provides a neat scheme of the differences we observe in working patterns which, despite authorship in 1980, is still a useful diagnostic today:

The Linear Concept:  aim for power and achievement

  • Focussed on rapid movement up the “corporate ladder”
  • Career success means gaining increased levels of responsibility and authority
  • Early identification and nurturing crucial
  • Flexibility a byword for success
  • Rotation, different jobs or geographies essential to round out the individual

The Expert Concept: value expertise and security

  • Most stable and historically dominant view of a successful career
  • A lifelong commitment to a profession with which one identifies
  • Continually mastering the knowledge and skills of the profession
  • Has historically provided the biggest transition challenge for new partners

The Spiral Concept: cherish personal growth and creativity

  • A less traditional view where one discovers one’s career
  • Periodic lateral changes of related fields (e.g. PP>in-house>corporate>PP)
  • Developing broader skills and new applications of previous experience
  • Will be of increasing value as ambassadors of the firm elsewhere

The Transitory Concept: seek variety and independence

  • The most change-oriented and least conventional view
  • The job itself is of secondary importance, a means to an end for a life defined by discovery, interest and adapting to new challenges
  • Not easily managed or developed, perhaps better utilised as part of a flexible offering, engaged as a contractor on a case by case basis.
  • The insight and thinking they can bring can be worth it

As you look at it, consider which of these seems most relevant to you and whether it’s in fact the trajectory you thought you’d be on when you entered the workplace.  This might come as a surprise.  What does it suggest about the way your career has developed and is it time to take back control?

About James Parsons

After a career in investment banking, James retrained as an executive coach and now works with senior people in technology, industry, finance and professional services.  He is busy developing Miramar’s leadership and talent advisory practice, with a keen focus on applying breakthrough discoveries from behavioural and neural science.  The aim of our development practice is to help clients explore how organisational capability can be enhanced through a solid understanding of human behaviour.


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