Boundaries on the boundaryless?

Catbells, Lake District

No boundaries on the way to the top

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:

  1. ‘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.
  2. ‘A move should be a move up’ — she claims that lateral moves are as valid and important as promotions in career success.
  3. ‘Big fish swim in big ponds’ — she reports that many successful people have moved between larger, well-known organisations and smaller, less-prominent ones.
  4. ‘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

Hopping mad?

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?

Further reading

  • 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?


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  1. #1 by Vinny on 10 August 2010 - 16:50

    Hi David,

    Reading this blog post put me in mind of a TV programme I watched the other day called Undercover Boss (available to watch again at:

    What struck me most was that the boss would have been objectively seen as sucessful (He was the chief exec of the Jockey Club) however during the programme he was shown realising that he had missed his son’s 4th Birthday and then admitting that he had missed this child’s birthday for three years running due to work commitments.
    Personally, I would see myself as being very unsucessful if I was in that situation.

    Also, last night I was talking to a man whose marriage collapsed because his £150,000 a year job took over his life. He now wants a job with less responsibility and is willing to take a 75% pay cut. In the objective terms described above he would be seen as becoming less sucessful – but definitely not in his own eyes.

  2. #2 by John king on 10 August 2010 - 20:06

    Those people who are generally judged by society as being successful – those who make more money than average, or who own businesses, do in fact report themselves as being happier than average. Autonomy appears to be the factor with the most influence, followed by salary (though it is likely the two are linked).

    Interestingly, work/life balance turns out to be not particularly important in happiness – despite people’s claims otherwise.

    Apologies for not backing this up with sources – I’m on my iPhone (developed by happy successful people go work very long hours) – but this information is from a large US survey.

    Vinny’s illustrations are interesting in that they illustrate that everyone is different, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the factors that the majority of society reports.

    Better to concentrate on driving those factors. As I commented on another post, recent research is suggesting that happiness makes you successful – not the other way round!

    • #3 by David Winter on 20 August 2010 - 11:29

      John, it’s not that simple. There are lots of that type of study around and they all tend to show different things. It depends on how you ask the question and how you define happiness. There are different correlations between ‘life satisfaction’ (making a decision that your life is good) and moment-to-moment ‘positive affect’ (feeling happy). Objective success has some correlation with life satisfaction but seems to have very little correlation with positive affect.

      How do we know that people aren’t reporting themselves as happy (life satisfaction) because they think they ought to be, even though they feel pretty miserable most of the time?

      Also there’s not a simple correlation. Happiness (life satisfaction) increases as you move out of poverty but doesn’t keep increasing as you get richer.There’s also some evidence that richer people find less pleasure in the simple things of life.

      The approach you take should be determined by your client group. If you are dealing with a wide cross section of people, then taking an approach that works with the majority is probably a sensible option (as long as you are clear that it’s not a magic formula that will hold for everyone). However, some of the clients who seek us out may not be part of the majority – that’s why they have sought help. For them you need a different approach.

  3. #4 by John king on 10 August 2010 - 20:50

    The four factors Hamori quotes seem to me to be entirely irrelevant. When appointing these positions, did the interviewers prioritise career moves above all else? Of course not.

    They would prioritise what the interviewee is actually like: how they work with people, what their life-attitudes are. Surely it is more likely that positive personal characteristics, and a positive fit between person and organisation, caused these individuals to stay put and progress within a particular organisation, and this is the causal factor which results in the findings above.

    So in fact this research isn’t bad – or good – news for the boundaryless career. Although arguably this type of career thinking (focusing on the career as if it is the thing that matters, rather than the person) is treating the symptoms not the cause of a person’s unhappiness…

    • #5 by David Winter on 20 August 2010 - 11:30

      I agree. That was the point of my post. Too subtle?

  4. #6 by Vinny on 24 August 2010 - 11:49

    If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success.

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