Increasing Career Resilience

Date:   Wednesday , November 05, 2008

For many employees, career management continues to be a conundrum. There is more confusion than clarity largely due to many misconceptions that surround the idea of career. That there is no clear understanding even on the part of many first-line managers complicates and confounds the situation further. Business and engineering schools do their unseemly bit to build this confusion into the heads of the students by reinforcing many narrowly defined points of view about managing one's career.

Common Myths about Career

There are many myths about careers and how to manage them, which mislead young professionals and as a result frustrate them. Some of the common ones are as follows:

* Successful career means getting frequent promotions.
* Career management is the organizationís
* Delivering great performance in the current job automatically guarantees higher positions.
* Management positions or roles are more valued than technical jobs.

Firstly, equating career performance with promotions has many implicit flaws in it. Career represents a series of learning and growth opportunities commensurate with an individual's abilities and contribution. But, career progress also happens in the context of opportunities that are available in the organization. In a typical hierarchy the pyramid narrows at the top, and so the opportunities at higher levels are very few. However, growth also implies becoming multifaceted by seeking job rotations that do not necessarily involve a promotion. It is also about enhancing and enriching the skills and experience profile by lateral movements within the organization. As hierarchies shrink and pyramids become shorter, growth will increasingly mean learning to look for 'career lattices' and not 'career ladders'. So, smart employees know that learning and growth is also horizontal mobility and not just vertical mobility all the time.

Secondly, many young professionals tend to regard their career management as the responsibility of their organization. Organizations, of course, provide opportunities for learning and avenues for further growth. But in reality, every employee must take ownership of their career and must manage it on their own. Managers only play a facilitating a role in helping employees explore avenues, assess their strengths and shortcomings, and guide them to look at various alternative growth paths. Employees who have had very successful and satisfying career look around for resources and guidance, but rarely delegate it to their organization or even to their managers. Good organizations have leveraged the IJP (Internal Job Posting) process extensively to help employees find their jobs or roles within the organization.

Thirdly, many employees also tend to have a mistaken notion that because they are doing very well in their current jobs, they would be a star performer in the next higher job also. The reality is that different jobs require different competencies, and even if the same competency level is involved, it will require a different magnitude of capacities. This is where a well-defined competency framework becomes very helpful in driving the message. Job descriptions, no matter how sharp they are, help precious little here. Promoting people, regardless of the higher level and order of competencies leads to what is now well recognized as 'Peter Principle'. Simply stated, it means, "In every hierarchy, everyone tends to get promoted to their level of incompetence."

Fourthly, a notion that management jobs are more respected than a technical job is widely prevalent in the industry. As a result, technical ladder in many IT organizations has come to be seen as an unattractive one. In a society that places an unjustified premium on high-sounding titles, it is not surprising that even those whose heart lies in doing hard core technical work often bury their dreams in favor of paper-pushing managerial jobs. Career counseling and mentoring play a key role in helping employees understand that technical jobs are no less important than the managerial jobs, and perhaps in technology-intensive companies, they are actually more critical and important than managerial ones.

Achieving Career Resilience

Robert H Waterman (HBR, July-Aug 1994) defines self-reliant workers as "Those who stand ready to reinvent themselves to keep pace with the change." They are not only dedicated to continuous learning, but they also take responsibility for their own career management. They are, of course, simultaneously equally committed to the success of their
organizations. And this comes with a lot of hard work. It requires fairly clear and deep understanding of oneís own strengths and weaknesses and having a plan for enhancing one's performance and long-term employability. It also means moving on when a win-win relationship is no longer possible.

Career resilience is about survival and then growth. We have seen instances of many employees in small and large corporations becoming victims of the 'Boiling Frog Syndrome'. The metaphor here refers to the fate of frogs that are in a vessel of water which is being heated slowly from beneath. Little does the frog realize that the water warming up slowly is not something to feel comfortable and cozy with; but that is what actually happens. Eventually, the frog gets boiled in the hot water and when the realization happens, it is too late to jump out. Well, the message here is not to jump around and change jobs at the slightest hint of discomfort, but really to keep the skills and competencies current and relevant so that discomfort is avoided.

Career resilience is therefore a condition of preparation that organizations must facilitate. And people managers must share this responsibility since they have both the visibility to the strengths and weaknesses and credibility with their direct reports. Preparing the line managers for delivering this task is squarely in the court of the human resource managers.

The author is Executive Vice President & Chief People Officer, Symphony Services. He can be reached at