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Extra: Building Your Career is Not Your Career
Or why short-term roles lead to a lack of fulfilment and innovation
This is the third in a new ‘Extra’ series of CX Story posts, with broader thoughts on business, leadership, and personal development.
When I worked at HSBC, I was one of those people who jumped between roles every 18 months or so. A bit of time running branches, a bit of time in Head Office, a bit of time working globally. I was lucky enough to be involved in some really interesting projects, albeit I couldn’t help feeling that what I did or didn’t do only ever amounted to a rounding error, as the company always seemed to make about £15Bn in profit regardless.
At the time, I thought this quick movement through roles was a great thing, letting me try lots of different jobs before settling on what I really wanted to do. But now I work across lots of different companies, and with people at a senior level, I can see that, for all the positives, it can have a dangerous impact both on people’s careers and on innovation in organisations as a whole.
Driven through the education system, it seems like corporate careers have this ‘video game’ feel about them now: the ambition isn’t necessarily to do great things; the ambition is to get to the next level as quickly as possible.
The same pattern repeats in organisations everywhere. A role has around a two-year shelf-life. You spend the first six months settling in, spend a year trying to do something that will get you noticed, spend the final six months positioning yourself for promotion. Then you move on.
This means that people end up getting promoted to a senior level quickly - but perhaps too quickly to consider whether it’s something they really want to do long-term. They end up getting trapped, earning a good salary that makes it hard to switch to something different. So, they spend their career earning well and moving between senior roles, but lacking that true fulfilment they might have had elsewhere, a sense of building frustration of what could have been.
The point of the career becomes to build the career, and then, just like a video game, it stops and leaves a sense of emptiness.
There’s a second problem with this ‘video game career completion’ approach, that it creates short-term thinking in organisations, leading to a lack of innovation.
To move their careers forward, people need results now, so the big, long-term, systemic changes that are needed get put to one side for the next person to do. This drives lots of well-meaning but piecemeal activity, whilst the overall organisation – perhaps industry, perhaps economy – stagnates to a point where it’s so far behind it’s impossible to catch up.
I was talking to a friend of The Foundation’s about this recently, a senior leader in one of the UKs largest organisations, who agreed. He said he often now saw
‘a desire from leaders to try and find a single silver bullet and a quick solution to a problem so that they can move on’.
He also said he’d started to see the same traits in the most successful climbers:
1. Manage upwards and focus on building strong senior relationships
2. Back safe, low-risk and ‘quick win’ initiatives
3. Don’t make mistakes – and if anything does happen, ensure any bad news is pinned on someone else
As a result, he rarely sees them doing anything big, bold, innovative or interesting
This ties in with one of the best books on human behaviour I’ve read, ‘Risk Savvy’ by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer. He warns of ‘defensive decision making’, an affliction affecting important decisions made in large companies. In extensive research, he saw that given a choice being a riskier, more innovative bet, and a safer but less innovative one, most managers go with the latter, because they worry that if something goes wrong, they would be held solely responsible. But for the company to grow, it needs some leaders who’ll go for the riskier, more innovative option.
So it seems to me that, ironically, the thing that stops people from building a fulfilling career is focusing too much on building a successful career.
People hit the mid-life, mid-career point and feel unfulfilled, feel the need to do something, to achieve something, to leave a mark on the world in some way, to create something. And I think this comes from the dawning realisation that whilst they’ve built a ‘successful’ career, they don’t have anything to show for it – at least, in terms of the impact they’ve had on others.
It may be that seeing your career as a series of projects to make something happen may be more interesting than simply being a ladder you need to keep climbing.
Because, it turns out, it’s the journey that’s the fun bit, far more than the destination. And that ladder, well, it never really ends.