Going Through Careers As If They Were Cars

The best way to predict the future is to create it.  Yet how many of us knew what we wanted to do back in those school days of yesteryear? And what about that dreaded question: “what will you be when you grow up?” This author’s early dream of playing baseball for the Chicago Cubs never got past age 13. Fortunately, other, more realistic plans guided my career. How many of you 40+-year-olds are in the same career that was envisioned years ago?

Research tells us that the average working adult changes jobs multiple times throughout their career.  For example, the younger Baby Boomer generation held an average of 11.7 jobs between the ages of 18 to 48, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Twenty-seven percent held 15 jobs or more, while 10 percent held zero to four jobs. Whereas this same segment of Baby Boomers experienced an average of 5.6 periods of unemployment, the more highly educated ones experienced less unemployment over time than others—e.g., college graduates endured 3.9 spells of unemployment through age 48.

This article attempts to make sense of what many readers may already be experiencing in their careers. Long gone are the days of our forefathers where life-long employment and fully funded pension plans were the norm. The rapid rate of change, intense global competition, and less-restrictive laws are three reasons, among others, why this change occurred.

Hence this paper’s title, i.e., the temptation working adults go through to change careers when faced with something sexier or trendier, like a new car model with state-of-the-art technology. This situation is not necessarily a bad thing if done for the right reasons.

Career Story

Let me share a story about a boy of modest means who caddied at an affluent country club. This boy purposely asked each golfer to share the secret of their success. Most did and offered the same advice: have a grand plan with stretch goals, reflect on progress, and work relentlessly to make good things happen. In other words, aim high and work hard to achieve success.

These accomplished business people, masquerading as golfers, took ownership of their careers early in life, adjusted plans as new goals evolved, and built up their skills to propel themselves forward. They were lifelong learners in pursuit of new knowledge. This young caddy not only listened, he’s now a top executive at IBM. In contrast, compare this to someone who does not think beyond the next paycheck, who stopped learning new skills years ago, and passively waits for opportunity to knock.  We do not want to be this type of person.

Everyone tends to have their own career story. It reasons that the career we pursue is a function of what motivates us, whether it be job security, comfortable work-life balance, or meaningful purpose.  Or it could be a combination, but there is usually one dominant need.  This article focuses on those who are purpose driven, i.e., passionate about making a real difference in achieving meaningful outcomes. While money and fun are still valued, purpose-driven people tend to have a higher calling and place greater demands on the leaders they work for and follow. Clearly, I’m biased as this speaks to my profile.

By applying one’s motivation level to work performance, we see how important the right frame of mind is while pursuing career objectives, according to two credible researchers with Bain & Company (Mankins, M. & Garton, E., 2017). Their findings reveal that engaged employees are 44% more productive than those who are just satisfied. And this factor jumps to 125% more productive among those who are truly inspired. Ideally, we want to be highly motivated in the roles performed to achieve long-term goals.

Like most goals, strategy needs to be in place to define: (1) what one wants to be long term, (2) where they currently are, and (3) how to realistically move forward to achieve milestones. Along the way will be blockers in varying degrees that challenge our progress. These blockers range in definition. Some are inept leaders, others are poorly run organizations. Even tough economic times can hold back careers with limited growth opportunities. On a personal level, blockers can emanate from what happens at home, with extended family, and personal relationships. Difficult choices need to be made whether to plow through, jump over, or go around these blockers.

Personal Experience

To make this article real, this author shares his personal experiences on career change, i.e., what it was like to navigate several transitions across multiple industries. No regrets as it was a journey rich in experience and learning. Plenty of lessons learned emerged.  Working for fledgling companies and clueless leaders taught me what not to do, or how to do things differently. Much better learning opportunities came from working with great leaders at well-run organizations. IBM and Citibank are two positive examples that quickly come to mind.

My journey also experienced a recent period of underemployment. As background, the job that I was hired to perform halfway across the country was a complete bust for what was hoped to be a purposeful role. As an aging Baby Boomer going through career transition, it took much effort to carefully sort through job opportunities. The switching cost of finding the right company, the right position, and the right leader takes time.

While interviewing, it seemed that a career rich in accomplishments and learned knowledge got lost within the context of posted job duties. Rather than describing how current knowledge and skills could be applied to real-life situations, I sensed that interviews tended to focus more on the past than the present. Rather than seeing the merit of earning a Doctorate degree in Management, I sensed that some hiring managers were leery of academic theory in the workplace. Rather than seeing value in vast experience and knowledge, I sensed that many hiring managers preferred younger, less expensive, and less experienced candidates for leadership positions that required highly specialized skills.

Fortunately, I had a teaching position to keep me busy and a career plan in motion that enabled me to find a far better company and role. No regrets whatsoever, as an inspired mindset is once again active for a purposeful role with plenty of ambitious challenges to satisfy my career goals.

The key takeaway is that we all need to employ a tactical and strategic view of our career. While your current job role may pay well and/or be fun to perform, reflect on how it fits into your overall roadmap. Ask yourself: are you learning new skills, getting enough valuable experience, and advancing fast enough to satisfy your career goals?  Even more critical is when we’re faced with go-nowhere roles that are neither challenging nor enjoyable. It is these situations where a career strategy and timeline can prove extremely valuable.

Framework Strategy

Mostly through my practical experience and training as a coach, I offer a 5-part framework to help others realize their career strategy. Clearly, it takes far more than “checking the box” to achieve one’s goals, which is why a mentor and/or professional coach may need to push you in uncomfortable yet helpful ways.

  • Decide on your “North Star.” What’s guiding you; what do you want to do and achieve in your career? What are your goals? Be bold and stretch your aspirations. Focus on new trends, “hot jobs,” and industry growth areas with a promising future. For younger professionals or students, think out 10 to 15 years. For older professionals, be realistic in setting time-bound goals. Though difficult for some to do, try to be specific in defining goals.  Rather than say “be an executive,” think more in terms of industry, type of company, degree of influence, and specific role type. The desired outcome is having a simple and clear strategy to guide your career growth over time.
  • Think through the blockers (obstacles) holding you back. What will it take to get past these blockers? This is about taking charge of your career, about being in control and doing something to break free. Examples include learning new skills, applying for new roles, changing jobs, and going (back) to college. One needs to contemplate taking risks in making choices between companies, new roles, and new assignments. While this may be discomforting in the short-term, hard work and perseverance can make it worthwhile. Career growth is not about comfort, but rather how to stretch oneself and compete with others for the next challenge.

As for professional development, leaders may want to improve their interpersonal and communication skills; Emotional Intelligence skills and leadership styles may need to be strengthened. Individual contributors may want to focus on technical or task-specific skills, perhaps a new coding language or professional certificate. In general, we need to build on our weaknesses while leveraging strengths. Drive to succeed and passion for learning are powerful forces that many purpose-driven individuals share.

  • Get help. Think about a getting a mentor and/or professional career coach—someone who can challenge you in ways that lead to positive change. As for mentors, having two types—one professional and the other personal—can provide a rounded perspective.  Our personal lives overlap with our professions, so a healthy balance of both can be beneficial. As for professional career coaches, ask for referrals among those you respect and know, especially those with a successful career progression. More likely than not, they may already be working with a professional coach.
  • Reflect on progress. Quiet time is needed for one to gauge progress on their career path. 360-degree feedback (top-down, sideways, and bottom-up) is recommended to assess the need for further skill development. This insight can highlight one’s strengths; it can uncover ways to further grow role responsibilities. Again, reflection is a perfect time to engage a mentor and/or career coach in candid discussion. Ask trusted confidents, “how am I doing, what else should I be thinking about, when’s my next move?”
  • Let others know of your plans. There is no good reason to make your career objectives a secret. Let your leader know of your aspirations. Share your plan while highlighting both near- and long-term goals. Realize that we need an objective voice for feedback, to guide and help us navigate career options. There is much you can do to manage your career: Ask for advice, seek new opportunities, volunteer for work assignments, enroll in training courses, and grow your professional network of industry contacts. As research shows, it is perfectly normal to change jobs and switch roles several times over the course of one’s career. Your professional network is a great source for new job/role opportunities.

As with most advice, the most challenging part is staying with it over time. As noted, one should occasionally review their career plan and adjust as needed to ensure that it serves a useful purpose. You do not want to be the one who does little to advance their career while passively waiting for opportunity to knock. Perhaps it’s time to further reflect on your career, to apply what is described in this paper to today’s rapidly changing, competitive work environment so that you increase your probability of success.  Best wishes for a rewarding career with few limitations.

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Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen is a scholar-practitioner with over 25 years of experience. As a scholar, he currently teaches strategy at Cornell University and the University of Maryland Global Campus. As a practitioner, his corporate career includes a variety of leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies IBM, Delta Air Lines, & Citibank. Dr. Bornhofen earned his Doctorate degree at the University of Maryland, a Master of Science degree from Colorado State University, and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota. As a conference speaker, Dr. Bornhofen presents at various industry forums. His current focus is on innovation within the water utility sector. As a researcher and author, Dr. Bornhofen published over 20 papers on topics related to innovation strategy. Passionate about change, Dr. Bornhofen embraces the creative spirit that goes into problem-solving, where smart people come together to transform great ideas into extraordinary outcomes. His articles reflect this passion and desire for continuous learning.

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