Ah, the dilemmas of navigating a modern career. In the past, progress was usually defined by linear, upward moves marked by more money, responsibility, and a more senior title. But things are changing in the career-work landscape. Put simply, modern career trajectories are a zig-zag.
I exaggerate a little. Certainly there will continue to be careers predominated by the more traditional linear trajectories, but perhaps it's time to look at some of the merits of doing some zig-zagging in your career.
As I reflect on my own career, I've been somewhat of a zig-zagger, with various successful, yet diverse career chapters. I was also was one of the earlier waves of people who shifted away from traditional corporate employment into the (then) newer terrain of establishing my own independent practice.
At the time some of those moves with unknown futures felt scary and I questioned if they were the right ones. As I look back I know my choices helped me find more creative paths to career fulfilment that worked well for me at the time.
Turns out the disparate pieces had plenty of transferable skills and strong connections that added to the greater whole of what I bring to my work today. Wish I knew back then what I know now.
I'm not alone. There seems to be a lot more zig-zagging in the work force these days – for some it's by choice and for others by default. With more upheaval in the marketplace, job seekers may find themselves making more frequent changes with more horizontal or out-of-the box moves as shorter-term contract work becomes more predominant, and companies get bought, sold or merge – or cease all together. And then there's the whole business of change to find meaning in work.
What's a zig-zagger to do? Well, whether by default of choice, here are some thoughts to help make sense of and get the most out of your zig-zag career.
Tenure can count but not if time spent is stagnant
What matters most is not how long you stayed in an organization or particular job before moving to the next one, but what you accomplished while there. Staying in a job long after the opportunities for growth, fulfilment and challenge diminish may not be a smart career move. While long, productive tenures can make for a powerful career – long stagnant tenures do not. More important to consider is the quality of the experience – what you got from and gave to the role: Did you add to your skills? Contribute value? Accomplish meaningful goals (organizational and personal)? Learn something new?
The bottom line here is to ask yourself if you're a more improved version of yourself for having had a particular work experience, and if you're now more ready for your next role.
Zig-zagging can help you discover yourself and more satisfying career(s)
Not everyone has a clear picture of what they want to do at the beginning of their working life. Some of us discover our career sweet spots while on the job. Perhaps you studied for a particular field and after some work experience realized it wasn't your thing after all – or it was great for a while but not for the long haul. That's okay, course correction is not a bad thing. Maybe something about the experience opened up a new possibility for you that you may not have otherwise been exposed to, or you are simply ready for something different. Either way, know that nothing is ever a waste – unless you deem it so.
Build skills, knowledge, and experience to get to a longer-term goal
If you have your eyes set on a big, long-term goal, the road ahead may not be linear. You may need to collect a variety of diverse yet meaningful experiences to get there. How to do this? Look for stretch assignments that expose you to new challenges that aren't part of your normal job. Take calculated risks – accept contracts rather than full-time roles if they add something significant to your repertoire of skills and experiences. Shake things up by taking on roles outside of your core area of expertise.
For instance, consider the finance professional who does stints within her company in operations, HR, and/or even marketing and sales to broaden her perspective and contribute to her long-term goal of becoming head of a company. Note some organizations encourage this (lucky employee!). Educate and retool – consider the medical practitioner who does the MBA to open up doors to health-care leadership opportunities down the road.
Longer lives leave room for more careers
Working-life longevity brings more opportunity for career changes. It's not uncommon now for people to have several meaningful careers over a lifetime. Boomers who defy the stereotype of yesterday's "retirees" are increasingly active in the work force, and many are zig-zagging their way to brand new careers. The key is to recognize how one's collective experiences can transfer and add value to a new chapter in one's working life.
Good zig-zag versus bad zig-zag
Not all zig-zagging is good. Haphazard, non-purposeful frequent changes can be damaging to your career well-being. Whether you are shifting within one particular career and field, or a variety of them, ask yourself these questions.
1. How will this change contribute meaningfully to my experience, knowledge, skills, and overall career growth potential?
2. What do (or might) I want to do with this new experience as a potential next step?
3. What doors might open as a result of this change?
4. What doors might close if I make this move, and will I be okay with this?
5. How might this change serve as a stepping stone for me to get to my bigger goal?
6. What transferable skills, assets and experience will be important and need to be communicated in my career narratives (résumés, Linkedin, interviews, etc.)?
7. What have I gained (learned, acquired, etc.) as a result of my past/current experiences?
8. What's the compelling value proposition of my eclectic experience for my future employer, clients, and to myself as I move away from this work towards something else?
9. And finally, some questions I continually ask myself as a meaning-seeking, zig-zagger: How's it going? Am I still growing, inspired, and being the best I can? Am I where I want and need to be? If not, what do I need next?
Eileen Chadnick (@Chadnick) is a work-life and leadership coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto. She is the author of Ease, a book offering strategies to manage overwhelm in times of 'crazy busy'.