The career paradox

Now jobs are no longer for life, why do so many people, HR
professionals included, fail to map out own their career path? Those with clear
career aspirations are not only happier but more likely to stay with a company
which offers them the right tools and processes

Last month the UK’s most high-profile outplacement candidate, outgoing Tory
leader William Hague, slipped quietly into the offices of his former employer,
management consultants McKinsey & Co, for an important meeting. He was
visiting his old mentor, octogenarian Brigadier Harry Langstaff who originally
recruited him to the company as a young Oxford graduate. It is unlikely that
Hague was discussing a new opening at Mckinsey. The point of the meeting,
according to one insider, was "a big chat all about life" – Langstaff
had offered to boost his former protegé in his hour of need with a timely crash
course in career management.

How nice it would be if we all had a wise and experienced mentor to call
upon during those crossroads moments in our careers. The best most people can
hope for, however, is a kitchen table pow-wow with their partner, or a session
down the pub with an understanding friend. For most of us, the first (and last)
proactive career management session probably took place between the ages of 16
to 18 in the less-than-inspiring environs of the school careers room. And if
anyone can remember the sage advice doled out then, they get full marks for
memory retention.

It is telling, perhaps, that the most famous biographical detail relating to
another Tory grandee, Michael Heseltine, is the way he outlined his future
career on the back of an envelope while still an undergraduate. The broad plan
was to make a million by the end of the 1960s, become an MP in the 1970s,
Cabinet minister in the 1980s, culminating in his election as PM in the 1990s.
The fact that he failed to achieve this ultimate ambition is irrelevant, the
salient point is that he bothered at all. In the eyes of most commentators
Heseltine’s rough career map singled him out as a man of unusual drive and
ambition even in the competitive world of politics.

Most surveys on the subject demonstrate what we already know: that people
are only slowly coming round to the idea that it is their responsibility to
manage their own careers. A study conducted two years ago by Penna Sanders
& Sidney found striking levels of apathy even among HR professionals – a
group one would consider more likely to take a more proactive approach to the issue
than most. HR people are clearly still far better at managing other people’s
careers than their own. Only seven per cent of respondents had bothered to keep
their CV up to date and under review. Even fewer had either planned their next
step, or were busy "actively marketing" themselves. "People only
think about their CV when they are looking for a job," concluded the
report. They should see it instead as an ongoing project that needs to be
monitored continuously.

Most of us, it seems, continue to expect some kind of unspecified
"nanny" to set career goals for us. "People often expect there
to be a path laid out," says Juliet Dyke, marketing director of careers
consultancy Blessing/White. "But there are no visible paths any more."

The change is another side effect of the demise of the jobs-for-life
culture. "In the past, career progression formed an important part of the
contract between
employer and employee," says James Gray, managing director of Spencer
Stuart Talent Network. There was the tacit prom-ise of a signposted progression
up through the ranks. In the absence of any unforeseen disaster, you could join
a company at 20 and confidently predict what you would be doing at 50."

When the economic downturns of the 1980s and 90s led employers to step out
of that commitment, most individuals were left to fend for themselves.
"And frankly," says Gray, "a lot of us have made a hash out of

The reason is simple. "Most people haven’t brought the same rigour to
the process of managing their careers as their employers did", says Gray.
The feverish outbreak of career-switching that accompanied the Internet bubble
is a case in point. "Many people with sound careers made what, with hindsight,
was a pretty naive decision. At the time, they thought they were taking control
of their careers."

Others maintain that the activity surrounding dotcom era was an anomalous
blip in an otherwise profoundly apathetic landscape. "Most people don’t
even bother to think about taking control of their careers," says Vic
Daniels, managing director of recruitment firm Carr-Lyons. The overwhelming
tendency is to drift along in the hope that the right opportunity will present
itself sooner or later. "But unless people start believing in themselves,
taking charge of their own lives and becoming masters of their destiny that
isn’t going to happen."

The root of the problem lies in wider cultural attitudes, says Daniels.
"It’s down to what I call the McDonald’s society of instant gratification.
People want everything immediately – and they have a false expectation of jobs.
They think that if they go in at 8.30 and finish at 5.30 they’re entitled to be
going places. When it comes to career management you make your own luck. The
more effort you make, the more doors will open up for you."

The good news is that a growing number of companies are now reawakening to
the importance of helping employees identify, plan and take steps towards
achieving their optimum careers. "For a lot of employers the topic of the
‘career’ has come back into vogue," says Gray. "Many are finally
realising employees with a clear sense of purpose and direction are likely to
be more effective in their current jobs than those merely going through the

The survey evidence bears this out. According to the Penna Sanders &
Sidney study, people who manage their careers are clearer about their
aspirations and more ambitious. A high percentage of this group claim their
ultimate ambition was to reach a board position, but many claim they may take a
career break in the process – indicating, perhaps, that they are also more in
tune with considerations of work-life balance.

Predictably, perhaps, those who don’t manage their careers are far less
driven. And because they are less clear about their ultimate ambitions, these
ditherers are more likely to be swayed by instant considerations when
contemplating a move. Immediate promotion prospects, income and their
relationships with managers all ranked above longer-term considerations when
this group was considering a prospective job switch.

But perhaps the most striking difference between the two groups became
apparent when job satisfaction was measured. A whopping 69 per cent of those
who claimed they were unhappy with their careers also admitted they were
failing to monitor them. Conversely, 81 per cent of those who were "very
happy" in their career had taken active steps to monitor it. As the
survey’s author concluded, "If you take control, you are more likely to be
doing what you want to be doing, achieving what you want and controlling your
personal growth and goals. Being proactive is likely to get you the results you
are looking for."

Employers contemplating this situation are in the grip of a seemingly
painful paradox. On the one hand it is clear that the most proactive career
self-managers are also likely to make the most effective employees. But it is
difficult to overcome the worry that by encouraging staff to take control of
their own destinies, employers may be actively encouraging them to seek greener
pastures elsewhere. Even the most upbeat careers consultants admit this is a
tricky hurdle. "The most difficult thing can be helping employers
understand how career management can help people achieve organisational
goals," says one.

But there is growing evidence that, far from encouraging a mass exodus,
offering individuals careers advice may actually play a crucial role in staff
retention. Those who are happy with their career progress are far more likely
to enjoy "a good fit" with their organisation and consequently less
likely to be swayed by rivals’ blandishments. Moreover, careers consultancy can
also be sold as a valuable part of a company’s benefits package. By offering
it, a company sends out the positive message, "We want to invest in you,
and help you achieve your goals". In the long run this is a far more
powerful means of maintaining loyalty than any kind of "handcuff" –
golden or otherwise.

As Juliet Dyke at Blessing/ White points out, those employers prepared to
take an active role in encouraging employees to manage their own careers are
more likely to enjoy a lasting influence on individual career paths. "Our
view is that it should be a shared responsibility. If you go ahead and let individuals
do it alone, they will just up and leave." The solution, she argues, is to
create "an organisational framework and culture" in which people can
develop – making sure that this culture filters right down to all levels in an

Essentially employers need to grasp the nettle. By demonstrating an
understanding that working life has changed – and accommodating the fact that
most staff will move on at some stage – they are far more likely to reap future
rewards. "If the culture’s right, the chances of an individual returning
to the company, possibly in a different future role, are far higher," says
Dyke. Moreover, many organisations are realising the power that former
employees can exert in the wider market as "ambassadors" for a given
company – a phenomenon that can be critical in the drive to attract new talent.

Where to start

Where do you start? At present it is clear that few organisations currently
provide an ongoing career management service – most continue to concentrate on
vocational training or development. This may explain why so many employees
continue to view taking control of their careers as an unfathomable exercise.

Surveys show that even HR managers are relatively clueless as to where to
start – and many continue to insist that they "simply don’t have the
time" to manage their future prospects. Only one third of those canvassed
by Penna Sanders & Sidney had received advice on career management and most
of those were already well advanced on the career ladder. The group most needing
advice as to future direction – those in the middle of the organisation whose
next step may be crucial to the ultimate success of their careers – are by and
large being left to dangle. It is surely significant that most people who do
manage their careers, work for an organisation where HR is represented on the

No-one is suggesting that advice alone will transform a lacklustre career
into a meteoric one. As Daniels remarks, real success doesn’t come about as a
result of reading books or attending seminars "that only gives you a
short-term burst". To win at the careers game: "You’ve got to really
want success. If you don’t want it badly enough, you’re not going to get

But all the evidence suggests that receiving career management advice can kick-start
a lifelong interest in monitoring a career (two-thirds of those who had
received it claimed they now actively manage their careers on an ongoing
basis). Most importantly, it forces you to think out your options, assess your
strengths and weaknesses and establish a sense of purpose. And that, surely,
can only be good for all concerned.

Six steps to help map out a career

1. Be aware that career management, like careers themselves, has
changed dramatically over the past few decades. "Twenty years ago great
business leaders were people who could manage their career as a steady
progression," says James Gray at the Spencer Stuart Talent Network, but
now a different set of skills is required. "The best leaders are those who
can manage things when they go wrong 
who can take a difficult situation and turn it round to suit their own
ends.  We all have turmoil in our lives
– successful people exploit that turmoil. Less successful people tend to

2. Don’t become too set in your ways. A common mistake is
stubbornness, says Gray. Many of us have long held a fixed idea of the kind
role we believe we are best suited to play. Very often, the reality is
different – and an unbiased second opinion may be the best means of pointing
this up.

3. Be aware of the need to keep moving forward – even within the
confines of one organisation. "Really successful people are relentless in
their drive," says Vic Daniel at Carr-Lyons. "The moment you rest on
your laurels, you’re dead." Don’t look at your CV simply as a means of
winning a new job. Consider it instead as an ongoing personal record of your
achievements – a portfolio of your skills. Think beyond the formal structure of
job titles and positions and focus on the projects you’ve worked on.

When assessing their place on the career ladder, many people tend to
underestimate their existing achievements, says Juliet Dyke at Blessing/White.
"Often they find they are closer to their goals than they thought."
Be aware of any gaps in your armoury and make a conscious effort to fill them.

4. Keep in touch with the market outside your organisation. Some
experts recommend applying for at least one new position a year – even if you
feel you don’t yet need to move on. They claim it can be an invaluable means of
testing your market worth and will also give you the confidence to be more
assertive within your own company. It goes without saying that networking –
both within the organisation and outside – is critical.

5. Seek out an experienced mentor – where possible in a position of
influence. Who you know is just as important as what you can do in modern
career management. If you can’t find a mentor within your own organisation look
outside. A growing number of headhunters and recruitment consultancies are now recognising
the importance of fostering closer ongoing links with candidates. Find one that
suits you and concentrate on establishing ties. Put yourself forward as someone
who is going places, and don’t be afraid to ask for candid opinions and advice.

6. Be prepared to take risks. The great advantage of the newly
flexible working environment is that failure is no longer a stigma and in
certain circumstances may even be regarded as a plus. If a job goes wrong,
accept the fact, learn from it and move on. Above all, maintain a positive
attitude in defeat.

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