When Nina Cheng graduated from university less than a decade ago, she didn’t think she’d be selling fox fur iPhone cases for upwards of $350. Working in three different industries – banking, consulting and fashion – before starting her fur accessories business gave her new insight on how to navigate her career.
Tired of the lack of freedom that accompanied elite banking and private equity jobs, she set out on her own to give herself more control over her career. “Starting out [during a recession], I was grateful to have work at all,” says Cheng, founder of Wild and Woolly, a New York-based company which sells phone cases and earrings. Later, she needed “complete freedom to explore other options.”
Pursuing fashion, Cheng made the leap from the corporate world to entreprenuership. Changing careers seemed exhausting at first, but having an overarching goal of sampling different industries – and ruling them out – helped her deal with the fatigue.
For many, it seems the career ladder is dead, but what’s replacing it may be more daunting. A career web, or lattice, is a professional path where lateral moves are as important to a worker’s end goal as traditional promotions and upwards mobility.
Workers are shifting to a web or labyrinth – there’s no career ladder you should climb
Many are still figuring out how to deal with the exhausting amount of opportunities that go with navigating this less traditional, flatter career path.
Workers are “shifting to a web [or] labyrinth – there’s no career ladder you should climb,” says Katy Tynan, chief talent development strategist at Coreaxis, a consulting firm that works with multinational companies. For most people it’s a good thing because, “the ladder construct forces everybody to be shooting for a single position at the top – it’s a recipe for lack of success,” she adds.
24% of workers under age 34 have already worked in four industries
The next generations of workers are much more likely to take a sideways move in their career, according to a 2016 report from Barclays bank. It found that 24% of workers under age 34 have already worked in four industries, compared to 59% of workers over 65, who spent time in just three industries for their entire career. For those that continue on this path, they will have seven times as many job roles as their parents, according to the data.
To navigate the career web, younger generations will need to prioritise building soft skills across a series of different industries, says Barclays senior marketing manager Tracy Williamson. There’s now less focus on industry experience and more focus on managing change in the workplace, communication across a variety of platforms and problem solving. Experience that’s specific to one industry can often be less important, she adds.
Pursuing a career web, where strategic and intelligent lateral moves are met with as much kudos as traditional promotions, does away with the traditional career dilemma of filling “dead man’s shoes” to get ahead – waiting for someone in a position above yours to move on so you can get promoted.
Pursuing a career web does away with the traditional career dilemma of filling ‘dead man’s shoes’ to get ahead
But while that choice seems liberating at first, constant decision-making is also exhausting – experts say constant reinvention requires more energy to make the kind of lateral changes that eschew a traditional path.
Options to move laterally, say from a job in sales to working as an independent consultant, have increased in the last decade. But they’ve also brought more confusion, says Tynan. With the rise of freelancing and the gig economy, the new career landscape is especially prevalent – where achieving success isn’t synonymous with reaching the top.
“It becomes really overwhelming and overloading to be thinking about all of these choices,” says Evan Polman, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies decision fatigue.
Constant bouncing around can hinder career progression, since it obstructs the kind of big-picture thinking that’s needed to build a growing career – away from the confines of working your way up in a traditional corporation, says Polman.
So what can you do if you’re overwhelmed by the need to constantly analyse your own career choices and consider your next strategic step, when it’s not as obvious as it once was?
Don’t ask ‘what do I want to be?’, instead figure out what kind of skills you want to master
Imposing your own boundaries is a good start. Tynan tells her clients not to ask the open-ended question of ‘what do I want to be?’ as a way to evaluate a career. Workers should let go of constant indecisiveness and instead figure out what kind of skills they want to master and focus on this type of work and the problems that they want to solve. “Some people are sort of miserable because they haven’t done enough introspection,” she says.
Rather than analysing potential career moves every week, workers today should review a clear objective annually with a larger goal in place for two or three years down the line, says Tonushree Mondal, a human resources consultant in Philadelphia. Limiting the number of times you think about overarching personal objectives can help you move past the constant feeling of limitless options, says Mondal. Creating a long-term career plan can help professionals to fit in smaller goals, she says.
Cheng says trying out various jobs and constantly meeting with people in a variety of industries made her realise that some of the career possibilities she was considering were not ideas that she actually wanted to carry out. Before launching her company, Chen spent two years doing short stints in project management across pharma and retail industries as well as networking with others in the fashion industry. She even did an unpaind internship at a fashion magazine. “I was pretty aggressive about asking people for insight,” she says.
Identifying clear markers of success as you narrow your career choices can also help you manage the pressure and fatigue of planning your next steps, says Polman.
For example, celebrating a newly learned skill or achieving a higher pay rate can help you feel that you’re progressing without the need for a more traditional promotion.
“You need some sort of semblance of progress where you feel like you are getting closer to choosing something,” he says.
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