In the July/August edition of the Harvard Business Review, Monika Hamori writes about research she has been conducting on the career histories of 1,001 US and European chief executives. In the article she seeks to challenge what she claims are a number of fallacies propagated by career coaches:
- ‘Job-hoppers prosper’ — she claims that people whose careers were concentrated within a small number of organisations get to the top jobs more rapidly than those who hop between organisations frequently.
- ‘A move should be a move up’ — she claims that lateral moves are as valid and important as promotions in career success.
- ‘Big fish swim in big ponds’ — she reports that many successful people have moved between larger, well-known organisations and smaller, less-prominent ones.
- ‘Career and industry switchers are penalised’ — she indicates that a significant proportion of successful people have switched industries at some point.
I will avoid commenting on whether these are actually messages that career coaches promulgate (other than to mutter the phrase ‘straw man‘ under my breath). Instead, I will go with my original train of thought when I read the article, which was something like: ‘Is this a mixture of good news and bad news for the boundaryless career?’.
The view from the boundary
Michael Arthur and his colleagues introduced the concept of the boundaryless career in the 90s after the corporate restructuring of the 1980s appeared to have dealt a death blow to the notion of working your way up the career ladder within one organisation (Arthur & Rousseau, 1996). It seemed that more people would have to get used to the idea of moving from company to company in order to progress upwards, and that sticking with an individual employer might limit your progress because of lack of opportunities.
A later paper (Sullivan & Arthur, 2006) elaborated on the concept of a boundaryless career by envisaging two dimensions of mobility:
- physical mobility — actual movement between jobs, organisations, occupations and countries, or movements which don’t fit the expected career structures
- psychological mobility — the person’s perceptions of career structures and their beliefs about how much they are constrained by them or can transcend them
On the face of it, it would seem that Hamori’s research links career success to some aspects of physical mobility (moving between occupations and industries) but not others (hopping between organisations). I’m not sure that it’s really as clear as that and this post by Jim Bright discusses in more detail some of the possible flaws in this research.
One thing which strikes me about all of Hamori’s research is that she focuses solely on physical mobility and when she talks about career success it is only in terms of objective measures (e.g. job title, salary, etc.).
What is success?
In response to a comment on an earlier post about happy and successful people I asked the question, “Whose definitions of ‘happy’ and ‘successful’ are we talking about?”
In another paper (Arthur et al., 2005), Michael Arthur asks a similar question to career researchers: How should we measure career success in a world of boundaryless careers? Many researchers, like Hamori, focus on the objective measures and, perhaps because of that, they are more likely to look only at the dimension of physical mobility within boundaryless careers. But a complete picture of career success should also examine the subjective measures of success, such as day-to-day happiness, feelings of control and autonomy, the need to do good, the value of relationships, maintaining work-life balance, etc. It would also examine the extent to which people buy into the traditional career structures and see themselves as constrained by them. Although, I haven’t followed a traditional upward promotional path, I still consider myself to have had a successful career because I continue to have increasing opportunities to do interesting things in my work.
Is this a case of measuring something because it is easy to measure rather than trying to examine something that is actually important but harder to capture?
Could that be why many people embarking on their careers start of by defining career success in objective terms, but when I see them later in their careers they have often moved more into the subjective realm?
- Hamori, M. (2010) Job-hopping to the top and other career fallacies. Harvard Business Review, 88(7/8), 154-157.
- Arthur, M.B. & Rousseau, D.M. (1996) The Boundaryless Career: A New Employment Principle for a New Organizational Era. Oxford University Press.
- Sullivan, S. & Arthur, M. (2006) The evolution of the boundaryless career concept: Examining physical and psychological mobility. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 69(1), 19-29. DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2005.09.001
- Arthur, M., Khapova, S. & Wilderom, C. (2005) Career success in a boundaryless career world. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(2), 177-202. DOI: 10.1002/job.290
- What is a career? 12 definitions of career success that can be used to start a discussion about how people should be measuring progress.
Related post: Are you a career pioneer?