Sunday, May 12, 2019

Should I Embrace a Non-Linear Career or not ?

This is in continuation of my last post on conversation with a dear friend of mine Ashok Thiruvengadam (founder and CEO of Stag Software). Ashok had reached out to record a video on the theme of  “Reinventing yourself in these changing times

[Ashok] It is seen that people deepen their knowledge/skills in their work area as a means to achieve career growth. Is such a unidimensional approach good ?
Do we need to break this linearity ?

[Anuj] I would like to put the answer to this question in 2 buckets. One is non-linearity aspect that you called out and the second is the unidimensional aspect.

Should I embrace non-linear career or not ?

Lets talk about non-linearity in careers. I have worked in a few organizations and know about the practices in a lot of other organizations, one thing that i find common is most of the organizations
(keeping start-ups out of this discussion for a bit) is that most organizations have a career path.
Two of the key characteristics of a career path are:
1) Career paths have an entry role. Any person who joins the organization right from college joins at the entry level.
2) Career paths have an end role. The end role usually is the department head or a VP or something similar.

Sensing this pattern, i asked myself 2 questions:
1. What is the highest role in the organization ? It's invariably the CEO or Managing Director or any other fancy name organization chooses to assign.
2. Why doesn't the organization's career path show the path right till the CEO ?

Ever wondered why the career paths stops after reaching a certain level. Its not a question with binary answers, so let me provide a perspective here:

1. Few years ago, i got a chance to speak with the CEO of Citrix (my current employer). Mark Templeton is a respected figure and a tall leader, a rare individual who won over almost everyone he got in touch with. He said something that stayed with me. In his words
"The path to top in any organization is never linear. It's always a zig zag path.".
What Mark meant was that people who reach the top of their profession know how to hack the ladder. And one cannot hack the ladder by simply following the career path.

2. Career paths, though they provide comfort, often return a very predictable growth. In some sense, career paths are self-limiting. Even if you may be good enough to be three levels above your current role, the career paths will always restrict your thinking to just think of one-level at-a-time.

3. While i may have said a few not-so-favorable things about the career paths but i do believe that whether to follow career paths or not, really is a choice. There is nothing wrong if you follow them. Not everyone is comfortable with non-linearity and it is fine. HR processes exists for a reason and that is to serve broader employee population and there is nothing wrong with it.
Personally, I am a proponent of non-linearity in careers.

Shall i go deep or go broad ?

Now putting start-ups into the equation. When the start-up is in early stages and the product-market
fit is not achieved, people play different roles. Your roles are not limited by your designation. You may play a role or engineer, product manager, marketing and technical support- all at the different times of evolution. Embracing diversity of roles is the need of the hour in the start-up scenarios.
Consider a situation when an organization is looking to scale. Having achieved sales take-off and looking to next steps of evolution, that's when specialization matter the most. If you have 100 customers to serve, then Technical Support cannot be a part time job. Organizations invest in specialization when they have to scale.

That leads us to 2 broad spectrum when considering the geometry of the roles:
Deep specialization or broad generalists.

Flexible generalists are the people who not only master how to learn any skill in a shortest possible time but also determine the path to value swiftly.

My hypothesis is that the careers of future would be that of Extreme specialization or Flexible generalists.

If you choose to be a Extreme specialist, just 2 points of advises:

1. Choose a field that will have an impact in the future. I am sure the people who choose Artificial Intelligence 15 years back are reaping the benefits of the foresight.
2. Strive to be in top 10-20% of your chosen field to reap real rewards. Yesterday, i was watching IPL and a thought came to my mind. I was really seeing top 2-3% of T20 cricketers in India in action. These are the players (though some of them are plain lucky!) who chose cricket as a field and specialized in 1 or 2 disciplines in it and are now reaping the reward of their foresight and hard-work.

I see the future of work consisting of a lot of Flexible generalists and a little less Extreme specialists.

Image source:*uZ8Bmx9PY1kmY6aNC_Dyqg.jpeg

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