When Tidjane Thiam, former CEO of Prudential (and an INSEAD alum) became the CEO of Credit Suisse, he was asked if he was equipped to do a good job since he had never worked in investment banking before. He replied, “I’ve studied physics and maths…there is nothing that I don’t understand in investment banking”.
Thiam embodies the often winding paths professionals are increasingly taking in their careers. As we move toward a sharing and on-demand economy in an already globalised world, the idea of lifetime employment with fixed skillsets is rapidly evaporating.
Until recently, people tended to stay in one job or industry for many years, if not most of their careers and employers looked for and valued employees with strong sector expertise much more than people with broad eclectic backgrounds and cross-sector experience, even if their overall profile could make them a better fit.
Now it is becoming more common for people to switch employers and industries frequently and change paths as they progress in their careers, building a “portfolio career”.
What do you want to be?
Some people are lucky enough to know what they are passionate about and want to do from an early age and can pursue it single-mindedly. But even they may have to entertain other options once their professional careers are over or they fail to achieve their ambitions.
Building a core set of skills and some sector expertise so that one does not become a “jack of all trades and master of none” is a good approach, especially as you progress through your career. However, I have found that often the knowledge and learnings I have acquired from one job or industry become equally useful and applicable in a new job in a seemingly unrelated sector. Steve Jobs said what inspired him most in the design of the transformational Apple “iProducts” was the knowledge he gained from a calligraphy class he took in college.