Is ‘management’ the wrong word?

Careers may just be too complex to 'manage'

At a recent workshop I was running for medical educational supervisors we were discussing why the provision of careers support for doctors is now such a big issue. In the words of one of the consultants: ‘You used to be able to bum around for ages as a house officer until you worked out what you liked and disliked. Now you have the two years of your foundation programme and you are expected to know enough about the whole of medicine to make a sensible decison about your entire future.’ This was backed up by stories from the consultants about their haphazard career paths, full of wrong turnings, unexpected discoveries and random opportunities.

I find it somewhat ironic, therefore, that one of the most commonly used phrases in this new career support is ‘career planning’. ‘Planning’, with its implication of being able to predict, decide and control the future seems an inappropriate concept for many of the foundation doctors I have met. Even the fairly self-contained world of the medical profession is subject to social and technological changes that see the waning of certain specialties and the rapid growth of new ones, so that it is hard to predict what an area of medicine will look like by the time you are qualified to practise it.

Outside of medicine, I have noticed that we tend to use the term ‘career management’, which, if slightly less prophetic than ‘planning’, still presents the assumption of control. Of course the currently correct terminology for what we do is ‘career development learning‘, but surely we don’t call it that in front of the students! So what do we call it? Is ‘career management’ the right phrase to use?

A number of people have suggested alternative phrases which might be more appropriate for the modern world of work. Here are a few…

Career adaptability

Mark Savickas has done much to update the work of Donald Super in order to incorporate modern developments in career research and theory, such as constructivism. He has suggested that Super’s original concept of vocational maturity be replaced with that of career adaptability. This new concept emphasises ‘a continual need to respond to new circumstances and novel situations rather than master a predictable and linear continuum of developmental tasks’ and is defined as ‘the readiness to cope with the predictable tasks of preparing for and participating in the work role and with the unpredictable adjustments prompted by changes in work and working conditions.’

Savickas calls his reworking of Super the Theory of Career Construction — career construction could also be an interesting phrase to use.

[Savickas, M. (1997) Career adaptability: An integrative construct for life-span, life-space theory. Career Development Quarterly, 45(3) 247-259.]

Career resilience

In a working environment that seems to change at an ever increasing rate it is important to ensure that you don’t end up with skills that are only suitable for a career that is facing extinction. In 1994 Waterman et al. proposed that workers should concentrate primarily on their career resilience. This involves a continuing process of self-assessment and skills benchmarking to monitor whether your abilities are likely to be relevant to the future direction of your career or industry.

[Waterman, R.H., Jr, Waterman, J.A. & Collard, B.A. (1994) Towards a career-resilient workforce. Harvard Business Review, 72(4), 87-95.]

Career shift

Robert Pryor and Jim Bright have suggested that we are in the business of helping people to shift with shifting times. We should be enabling clients to re-invent themselves, spot opportunities and recover from set-backs. Our task is to prepare people to cope with the uncertainty, unpredictability and complexity of modern careers by helping them to recognise patterns and extract meaning from the chaos of life today.

[Bright, J. (2008)  Shift happens. Keynote Presentation to the Australian Association of Career Counsellors Annual Conference, Hobart.]


Gray Poehnell and Norman Amundson suggest the metaphor of crafting rather than managing a career. Crafting combines both creativity and practicality. It involves honing your basic skills until you reach mastery.

[Poehnell, G. & Amundson, N. (2002) CareerCraft: Engaging with, energizing and empowering career creativity. In Peiperl, M., Arthur, M.B.& Anand, N. (eds) Career Creativity: Explorations in the Remaking of Work. Oxford University Press, pp. 105-122.

See also Wrzesniewski, A. & Dutton, J.E. (2001) Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Academy of Management Review, 26 179–201.]

Career meandering and manoeuvring

Lynne Bezanson from the Canadian Career Development Foundation introduced the idea of career as being a combination of meandering and manoeuvring. Meandering is the acceptance that careers do not tend to go in straight lines. Pursuing a career will often involve exploring to find a way around obstacles discover new routes. Manoeuvring involves positioning yourself to take advantage of potential opportunities.

[See Alberta Advanced Education and Career Development (1999) Multiple Choices: Planning Your Career for the 21st Century. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Notice the unfortunate use of the P word in the title!]

  • How do you describe what you try to teach people in career development learning?
  • How much do you think the phrases you use really matter to the clients?
  • Does what you teach really prepare people for the complexities of the modern working world or is it slightly too simplistic?

Related post: Constructing successful careers

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  1. #1 by Aminder K Nijjar on 3 November 2009 - 12:04

    Thanks for more food for thought.
    Funnily enough just yesterday I started writing a piece on the term career planning.
    Most of us ‘admit’ to not planning our careers, or that we have planned, the ‘reality’ has turned out to be very different to the plan (even when people have plan A, B, C…).
    I especially like the terms career adaptability and career craft. There is merit in all the ideas, but in relation to the terms themseleves and their use by and with clients, the latter (career craft) in particular gives a stronger message of proactivity, skill (and fun!) on the part of the individual. The combination of creativity and practicality I think is very apt for our current world.

    • #2 by David Winter on 3 November 2009 - 12:42

      I quite like career craft too. Or how about a similar phrase ‘career sculpting’? What you are able to produce is partly determined by the raw materials and the tools you have available, but also by your own creativity and vision. You will start with a rough shape but gradually refine it with the aim of producing something beautiful.

      I have come across a couple of references to career as sculpture.

      Bell, N. E. & Staw, B. M. (1989) People as sculptors versus
      sculpture: The roles of personality and personal control
      in organizations
      . In Arthur, M.B., Hall, D.T. & Lawrence, B.S. (eds), The handbook of Career Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 232-251.


      Butler, T. & Walldroop, J. (1999) Job sculpting: The art of retaining your best people. Harvard Business Review, Sept/Oct, 144-152.


  2. #3 by Aminder K Nijjar on 3 November 2009 - 12:46

    Especially to reinforce the idea that ALL of us are creative (and that career development is creative).

  3. #4 by eltel on 4 November 2009 - 16:26

    All true, though it begs the question about the needs of those people who have a preference for planning in the way thay organise their lives. A career plan is a hypotheis – another way of visualising the process. You test the hypothesis in order to prove it or disprove. New data suggests new hypotheses.
    I am not ready to totally abandon the notion of planning as long is it allows me to include important ideas like ‘preparation’ and ‘aspiration’. A plan is able to dialogue with ‘reality’
    Between the vision and the act falls the shadow.

    • #5 by David Winter on 4 November 2009 - 22:39

      Ah Terry, you have revealed my fiendish scheme to abolish the idea of planning! But no! A scheme is a plan – I may have to vanish in a cloud of self-contradiction!

      Of course, you are right; there are people out there who like planning ahead. I don’t think that words like ‘scuplting’ or ‘crafting’ exclude the idea of planning. A good sculptor or craftsperson will often decide in advance what they are going to do and make preparations. However, such metaphors also allow for the notion of improvisation and adaptation. The word ‘planning’ is much less accommodating.

      I suppose I get a bit tetchy when people try to convince natural improvisers that they should really be planners rather than helping them to become more effective improvisers who can plan when they need to. I also want to help those who like planning to be better planners who can improvise when they need to.

      I like the sound of your idea of planning as hypothesis testing and dialoguing with reality. I’m just not sure that most people who use the word mean it that way. My particular beef with the use of the phrase career planning in the context of medical training is that the new system doesn’t make things difficult for the natural planners. It makes things much harder for the natural meanderers and explorers by giving them much less time to develop their career identity.

    • #6 by David Winter on 7 November 2009 - 09:45

      Pondering further on this… I wonder if promoting some level of career adaptability is more important for the natural ‘planners’ than it is for the natural ‘improvisers’. If we are not preparing the planners for the strong likelihood that their plans will not work out as they envisage them, then we are short-changing them. We are not giving them the skills and attitudes that will help them to cope in the constantly-changing world out there.

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