Can a career be planned? What happens to the career path, when money and rising up the ladder aren’t the only defining factors? Illustrations Jack Hughes.
A story about the way we ditched clocking in
and the traditional bottom-up career path
The conventional definition of a career is as clear-cut as clocking in. People used to go to work, do their job, and gradually make their way up the hierarchy. The way and pace for rising up the ladder were easy to figure out. The retirement of someone at the top of the ladder would cause the whole chain to shift up a notch. It was rare for people to do something as radical as change workplaces altogether.
Subordinates, a pay rise, and, at best, appreciation were accumulated over time, as the career – or time – progressed.
This is the way that also Professor Pekka Mattila, Group Managing Director at Aalto University Executive Education, began his ascent in the early days of his career. In his summer job at an insurance company as a 17-18-year-old, he soon learned the ropes of a traditional career path.
“The head of department’s office was situated at the end of the corridor. I realized I could first advance to handler, then head of division, office manager, vice department head, and, finally, head of department. It was quite startling, when I was promoted to head of department at the age of 26, and the pattern emerged.”
His career had progressed in the traditional way – and would have continued to do so had he not decided to change jobs.
The insurance company didn’t become his lifelong workplace. It’s a sign of our times; people are now ready to change companies, fields, and even countries at the drop of a hat, when it comes down to it. Despite this, proactive career planning is a remote concept in Nordic culture. Anyone who admits to planning a career is at times even shunned at.
“Colleagues feel that someone actively planning their career has sharp elbows, while the boss can get the jitters over their own position”, explains Pekka Mattila.
Mattila links these reactions to the notion of Nordic democracy: “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re better than the rest”.
“It takes maturity from a manager to hear that an employee is after their position, forcing the manager to plan the next move.”
These days, management contracts often involve deciding, in writing or mentally, that tasks are changed, or at least reconsidered, in 3-5 years’ time.
Compared to the Nordics, it’s another story in the U.S., where the twists and turns of a career path are often planned to the minutest detail
Liisa Välikangas, Professor of Innovation Management at Aalto University and Hanken School of Economics, shares an example about her American colleague:
The colleague wants to nail a position as HR Director at a Fortune 500 firm. (The Fortune list ranks 500 largest U.S. corporations measured by gross revenue.) She finds herself a mentor within the firm for planning the next step, and they then jointly analyze areas that meet the requirements for the position and merits that need to be worked on.
It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, where you collect an expertise merit, budget responsibility, HR responsibility, and so on, for the palette."
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, where you collect an expertise merit, budget responsibility, HR responsibility, and so on, for the palette”, describes Välikangas. Her colleague now happily works as HR director for a game company after working for two different global companies – the other a Fortune 500 corporation. Välikangas estimates that only few people in Finland plan their moves with such precision.
“It happens to a degree on LinkedIn, where people list their skills in a similar fashion. Even I’ve written recommendations on LinkedIn”, says Välikangas. The way it goes is: 1) A career is actually planned to begin with; and 2) The plan is divided up into segments, then you make a conscious effort to seek relevant experience for the required areas.
In Finland and other smaller countries, determined planning isn’t necessarily much use with such a limited job market
“Everyone knows everyone”, says Professor Liisa Välikangas. “People aren’t recruited for their competence, but for being known within the work community. Helsinki is a very small place, and if networks are as important as they seem, career planning doesn’t help much.”
Välikangas, who in addition to having lived in the U.S., Japan, and Switzerland has worked in a number of different countries, criticizes the culture of smaller markets, which favor hiring people who are already known.
“Finnish work communities need shaking up, but they rarely dare hire people they don’t know. Networks are too important. At the same time, it’s easy to put each person in a suitable box.”
Hiring those you know or know of fits in with a desire for safety and consensus, and is seen to minimize risks. However, Innovation Professor Välikangas reminds that a much bigger risk is involved in a situation where all employees share the same background and views.
What is the future of career planning for those who aim high? Turning our gaze to the Silicone Valley in the U.S. provides some clues
In Silicone Valley, talents move from one company to another chasing interesting projects. Often an entire team follows a particular project.
Teams face the challenge of landing the most alluring project, while companies have the challenge of communicating internal projects externally to secure the best talents. For companies, this challenge can be perplexing, as they don’t necessarily want to give away too much about a product development project.
“Who would want to get hold of a company that looks like a gray wall?” asks Liisa Välikangas, who lived in Silicone Valley for a lengthy period of time.
Välikangas envisages a future where companies don’t even want to hold on to their top experts for fear of becoming “stale.”
Companies of the future are no longer organizations of permanent employees, but serve as architecture for visiting talents."
“Companies of the future are no longer organizations of permanent employees, but serve as architecture for visiting talents. People give their all for a brief moment. Then it’s time to move on again.”
This way of working may sound utopistic, but according to Välikangas, the signs are already out there. Take Kaggle for instance, an open community platform where people can add mathematical problems to be solved. Currently, 300,000 mathematical geniuses are competing to solve various issues, gaining merit the further they get.
Companies like General Electrics have used Kaggle for problem-solving. “A certain type of data mass and competence accumulates around the world, which can be approached. It doesn’t make sense for a company to contemplate how to hire the best mathematician for its ranks, but to think about how to get the best mathematician to solve its problem.”
What does this way of working mean for employees?
At least interesting tasks, contracting, uncertainty, and possibly lucrative gains. The job market is marked with a new dynamic, as future talents are no longer willing to invest their competence in just one company.
“It’s important to be involved in global business somehow”, says Liisa Välikangas. “I don’t believe basic employment will garner much more in the future. Some work can be done on a voluntary basis, which needs to be backed up with some type of investment portfolio. This doesn’t necessarily mean monetary investments, but could entail involvement in establishing a company in the global economy”, she visualizes.
The model envisioned by Välikangas would mean having a resource and competence portfolio with an investment section that brings the livelihood, as work itself wouldn’t always be paid. Unpaid work would make sense for some other perk than money, such as maintaining competence, networking, and personal motivation. Work itself could be more of a risk investment: sometimes profitable, sometimes not.
The Silicone Valley model is not a reality for many yet
Large corporations continue to principally hire talent for their own ranks – or for their own pyramids. According to the pyramid model adopted by Citibank, employees advance from managing themselves to managing others, directing directors, and ultimately to top management and being part of the global talent pool.
Citibank’s pyramid model is just one example. All large corporations have their own organizational contraptions these days. Silos are no longer in fashion, and things aren’t going too well for the matrix either. New forms have been invented in an aim to create an image on the company website of you – the employee – getting the chance to flourish. This is ensured e.g. through cross-functional activities for creating future leaders.
The rhetoric of career contraptions has taken on such a visionary daze that it makes the reader laugh and confused at the same time.
“It’s still about the basics”, states Kerttu Tuomas, HR Director and Member of the Executive Board of Finnish Kone Corporation. How does Kone take care of basics, such as the employer and employee benefiting from each other as much as possible?
At Kone, a development plan is compiled for each employee, charting skills, positions that match the skills, and what the employee still needs to learn. Also the right time for transferring to new tasks is considered. “The importance placed on career planning is extremely individual”, Kerttu Tuomas says. “Mechanics out in the field have certain logical career steps, while advancement isn’t necessarily so linear among experts.”
With its global operations, differences in career planning between developing and mature markets are evident at Kone.
To put it bluntly: poorer countries are interested in a career for the money, while work needs to offer more than money in wealthier countries.
“The economic model in China, for instance, enables a considerable increase in livelihood, as the career progresses”, explains Kerttu Tuomas. “With the preconditions having been in place on our mature markets for a long time, motivation is not merely sought from making a better living.”
Less interest in seeking management tasks is a sign of our times. Tuomas ponders whether this boils down to self-directed thinking or an unwillingness to be constantly at hand. Many employers have noticed a rising interest in expertise, rather than advancing via management work.
Kone values lengthy employment relationships. But not alone.
“A company with only lengthy employment relationships closes in on itself”, explains Kerttu Tuomas. In other words, fresh faces are also in the interest of the employer. According to the HR policy of Kone, 75-80 per cent of the recruitment of middle management and above should be internal. Regional units are mainly staffed by local employees. The right candidates are sought for global positions without geographical restrictions.
Kerttu Tuomas from Kone plans careers for others for a living, but hasn’t really planned her own.
“Someone born at the end of the 1950s has been taught to take work seriously and do it well, and other things will follow. It’s turned out rather well.”
Tuomas isn’t interested in talking about a career path, which she thinks is an outdated concept. She prefers the term competence path due to its focus on skill – what you need to know in a specific task. The definition of a career has truly changed.
Skills were needed also before, but a traditional career was also largely shaped by the person’s position, time, title, and ensuing assets. These were also considered worth aiming for.
Now the career path, competence path, whatever you wish to call it, rambles more wildly, and at times people jump off the bandwagon altogether.
This creates immense opportunities for employees. It’s the employers who need to be on their toes: how to keep the best people?
The latest story from the job market features millennials; those twenty-somethings coined as wealthy anarchists, set to revolutionize working life with their individualistic values and digital savvy
For them, being a boss, working hours, dressing up for work, and even slaving away for years are all things tucked away in the past to cater for the urge to spend a year or two surfing in Bali, or attend a yoga retreat up in the mountains.
Are millennials also set to redefine success, leisure time, money, and work? In the view of Kerttu Tuomas from Kone, millennials will be transforming working life, but working life will also change them. Also Pekka Mattila from Aalto University puts the brakes on, calling millennials “people with commitments, just like everyone else”. According to Välikangas, millennials don’t form a heterogeneous group, but include a fair amount of those after a more stable living.
To summarize, the job market of 2015 is restless to say the least. Winds of change are blowing on at least three different levels: the global economy, organizational changes, and people’s own, altering goals.
A story about what to consider, when figuring
out what you want from working life
Some pine for mandatory coffee breaks and tight line management, while others fall under the spell of dynamic chaos and its multitude of opportunities; end up in an industry they find interesting; or single out a specific company they want to work for. Many notice that they mainly drift into different tasks accidentally. People have highly diverse needs and wishes regarding their working life. The good news is that this is completely fine these days. People also have different attitudes towards work at different stages of their lives.
“Having exactly the same attitude towards work at all times would be worrying”, says Pekka Mattila from Aalto EE.
But how can you know what method of working or career path is the right one? What if you don’t know what you want?
The usual story is that people apply for jobs after graduating, end up somewhere, and pretty soon get swept away by their job. This is a good thing, as it means people get interested in what they do. The strategy may work throughout working life.
But to get more out of working life than happenstance, you need to dig deep down and do some soul-searching until you begin to know yourself."
But to get more out of working life than happenstance, you need to dig deep down and do some soul-searching until you begin to know yourself. You need to be as honest with yourself as possible, considering at least the trends and factors that influence work mentioned below.
Gone are the days of separate work and personal lives. The two now intermingle. You can more or less bring your whole persona to work these days, but also the demands are more full-on.
Management and expert positions have practically no set working hours anymore.
“I don’t differentiate between my work and personal life at all”, says Professor Liisa Välikangas. Her attitude is increasingly prevalent and perhaps also the most admired.
But it’s not for everyone.
Some want to travel, while others are interested in moving to another country, or want to leave work at 5 on the dot every day. In principle, personal preferences are easy to figure out, but working through them and finding work to match is a more difficult feat. Sticking to mainstream ideals is the easiest route. In many fields, it’s almost a taboo to admit that work isn’t the main thing in life.
A hankering to be the star of the organization is of course natural, but all types of employees are needed
That’s why it’s important to think about the type of position that feels genuinely comfortable. “I’d be managing a rather unusual organization, if everyone wanted to be the star of the show all the time. It’s good that employees have balanced stages. Although balance is of course relative, and doesn’t stop the organization from exceling in the race”, says Pekka Mattila. It’s easy to imagine how unbearable a team would be, if every member wanted to outshine the other.
Naturally, people are individuals, but certain trends can be understood from the perspective of gender."
It’s also good to examine the influence of gender in working life. Naturally, people are individuals, but certain trends can be understood from the perspective of gender.
A male soul-searcher is more unlikely to notice those intricate, sometimes even totally apparent social patterns at the workplace than his female counterparts. Women, on the other hand, are more prone than men to making sure they master things to perfection before daring to move forward.
“On a larger scale, men more eagerly demand both better pay and training, while women will request these later on, washed down with too many explanations”, describes Mattila. He thinks social control is stronger among women than men: women don’t have the nerve to request training or a pay rise, when all the talk at work is about hard times.
On the other hand, it’s not always the right time to demand.
Mattila has home across a new phenomenon on the job market; young women who have “read their Sheryl Sandberg”. Here Mattila refers to the book Lean In by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, encouraging women to demand and advance their career.
“Regardless of gender, it’s possible to ruin a career by being demanding before even gaining any work experience or proof of dedication. Sandberg is a member of Silicone Valley’s top elite with a track record that matches her demands. It’s hardly wise to start throwing demands at the first ever workplace or meeting. You have to prove yourself first.”
Kerttu Tuomas from Kone agrees that women are generally more careful. Situations in life, children mainly, “perhaps show more” among women. “Of course the same goes for young men”, says Tuomas.
According to Mattila, the ageing of the population can be seen at workplaces, as an increasing number of employees request exemption from travel in order to care for their ageing parents.
In thinking about what you want from life and work, Tuomas reminds to keep in mind it’s not all over after hitting 35. No need to rush
Liisa Välikangas encourages career planners to define their innovation profiles. You can do this by thinking about your level of risk tolerance, work methods, ability to handle uncertainty, willingness to change, and also the way you deal with financial risks.
“Enthusiasm for innovation is a question of both character and situation. Although some people are natural risk-takers, they still need the right conditions for making a profit”, explains Välikangas.
The general situation and financial standing of senior employees would allow them take a whole lot of risks, but for some reason it’s a notion ascribed to the young.
According to Välikangas, a person’s innovation profile and attitude towards risk-taking forms the foundation for planning the career path.
Motivation for one’s career doesn’t of course have to hail from the confines of the field.
“Learning from different cultures has been a guiding light throughout my life. I’m extremely curious about the surrounding world. I’ve worked in Switzerland, Japan, California, and Finland”, says Välikangas.
Working among different cultures is a good way to learn about yourself. In a new culture, you can’t rely on surrounding, wavering norms, which forces to define both oneself and what one wants.
After clarifying personal needs and values, it’s time to assess how they match daily life at work."
After clarifying personal needs and values, it’s time to assess how they match daily life at work. Tuomas from Kone shares a practical example: An employee committed to quality thinking won’t enjoy working in a place where the sole intention is to minimize costs.
In Silicone Valley, choice of workplace is strongly tied with making the world a better place. It’s a result of wealth and people wanting to give something back to society from their hefty wages.
Liisa Välikangas takes another example from the U.S.:
“The director of a large game company said that employees regularly ask about the company’s ultimate purpose. Making money or creating wealth isn’t a good enough purpose, as satisfying the needs of a consumer society doesn’t satisfy those at the top. It may sound naïve for someone outside Silicone Valley, but it’s a valid question. What is the ultimate purpose of a company?”
According to Välikangas, an unwillingness among employees to work in companies that don’t take sustainable development seriously is another factor that’s evident in today’s labor market. It’s a good decision, as collaboration won’t work if the values of employees and the company are in conflict.
A story about how to outline
a five-year career plan
Five years. Enough time for in-depth learning of totally new skills or switching jobs. It’s also a good timeframe for career planning. Where do I want to be in five years’ time, what skills do I want to learn by 2020?
“Five years is enough time to learn the basics in almost any field or function. It’s also enough time for attuning one’s behavior”, says Professor Pekka Mattila.
For a five-year goal, you first need to thoroughly analyze your starting points. Where am I now? What have I achieved? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What’s my market value? You need to be humble and pushy at the same time. It’s quite a juggle, as it requires both admitting and dealing with weaknesses, and marketing strengths. But this paves the way forward.
In five years’ time, Pekka Mattila sees himself still getting on with his current work, because “I’ve promised to see the organization into year 2020”. After that, he envisages working “perhaps outside Finland, maybe on the board of a large organization, or heading a bigger company of experts, which could well be where I work now.”
Mattila says that he practices career stage planning, but not down to the minute details of each task or project. There’s always room for coincidence.
“I’ve gained more than anticipated in light of my skills and expectations”, he smirks.
Liisa Välikangas views her career in five years’ time in form of a portfolio.
“Some areas progress, others don’t. That way you don’t end up having all of the eggs in one basket. Right now, I’m thinking about what that new, fresh thing could be. I’ve written books and articles, but what’s next? It’s something to always keep at the back of the mind. Thinking about the future doesn’t mean a lack of commitment towards your current work.”
The portfolio can consist of diverse work, but it’s important to think about the direction. Does it lead towards the desired goal? And another thing: you must try more than once.
“I’ll be in some unforeseen place. I’m waiting for a lucky coincidence, serendipity”, comments Välikangas on her own career plans.
Kerttu Tuomas comes from another starting point.
Of course planning the next move and developing skills should be considered, but “the most important thing is to do well in your present job and think about what you can learn”. In other words, you shouldn’t get so worked up about the future like many ambitious people seem to do.
“Networking internally and taking an active interest in new projects are good ways of getting noticed.” Getting noticed – in a positive sense – requires professional and social skills.
Already your basic manners can bring you positive attention: the way you greet, thank, give feedback, and ask how your colleagues are doing. Many foreigners and Finns returning from abroad to work in Finland are met with a social culture that seems unfriendly. Instead of saying hello, colleagues glance downwards. In many other countries, people seem to be more sociable by nature.
But you need more than good manners to really get noticed.
“You need to be able to interpret situations, the mode of working. You can deduce whether a meeting is about a peaceful exchange of thoughts, or has a challenging vibe that creates something new”, says Tuomas. “You also need to deal with differences to a certain degree. No-one’s looking for clones.”
Careers can easily be thought of as solo performances, but in truth they are largely made up of collaboration, networks, and social awareness.
Even the careers of a go-getting alpha male or success-hungry female boss don’t amount to much without other people. Careers are always social constructions that can’t be built alone.
A company that sees potential in employees will invest in them: give them interesting tasks, maybe a pay rise, send them off to management training. According to Pekka Mattila, completing an MBA program usually results in an employee rising to the organization’s management team from a couple of levels below.
Sometimes training serves as breathing space or time out. “Lengthy, expensive training programs can be a way for a company to buy more time. Key people are given training possibilities, if a new, challenging role can’t be offered at the time. It’s a good move, but organizations could be more proactive in establishing what employees really want”, describes Mattila. “We don’t really have a tradition of genuinely listening to employees in this way. Too often, advancement continues to mean a management position.”
The classic trap for a company is for an employee to return with an MBA or other top qualification in their pocket – only to change employers. This usually results from the newly acquired competence revolutionizing the employee’s world, while the company stays the same. The employee sees the former workplace in a whole new light. “I see two groups”, says Mattila. “The first has a clear aim of establishing their position in the current organization. For the second group, an MBA offers a ticket to freedom and something new.”
Liisa Välikangas thinks companies need to ask themselves why an employee chooses to leave. “Why can’t the company offer a more appealing role? Should the company perhaps be sharpening its more challenging and risky spearhead projects?”
Usually employees going away to do an MBA have a financial commitment to the company, and changing jobs sooner than agreed results in the employee footing part of the bill. But the company still needs to ask itself why a person wants to leave. Wasn’t it able to offer enough challenge?
But an employee leaving doesn’t have to spell disaster.
“You shouldn’t even assume that employees stay forever. A suitable expiry period for an MBA could be 3-5 years after graduation. The company’s dynamics would come to a halt without a change of people”, says Mattila.
Many fear resignation for no reason. It’s a step on the career path.
Consulting firm McKinsey, for instance, goes as far as encouraging its corporate clients to grab experienced consultants to work for them. Young consultants can’t get ahead in their career, if seniors don’t move out of the way.
In other words, employee turnover can be a welcome trend also for the employer. “Companies need to accept that everything has a lifecycle. An organization should be fine with people leaving. When someone’s exit goes smoothly, it can bring all sorts of selling potential in the aftermath”, highlights Pekka Mattila. According to Mattila, even key personnel shouldn’t be held onto at whatever cost. “Bought love won’t last.”
SPRUCE UP YOUR CV!
What are the hallmarks of a CV that will convince a potential employer?
A CV can be in the traditional written form or a video. User-friendliness is the main thing.
“Those who read through CVs are busy people. Keep it short and sweet. What sets you apart from the rest? What can you bring to the company?” guides Kerttu Tuomas from Kone.
“It’s essential that the CV tells a story”, adds Liisa Välikangas.
It’s essential that the CV tells a story.”
Välikangas advises candidates to tell the story behind their efforts - their personal strategy. What have their choices aimed at? How do they justify their choices? Also conveying a softer side is relevant – how candidates want to influence society and the environment, for instance.
Also Pekka Mattila thinks a CV should tell a story. This puts the applicant in a certain context: where I come from, what I’ve chosen, what lies ahead.
“A CV should have enough sections, but not too many. A good test is if someone can tell my story after hearing it once. Also the CV’s language is a delicate matter”, says Mattila. “It shouldn’t be about me all the time, but a constant we isn’t good either, as it leaves personal achievements in the dark.” As a general rule of thumb, using the third person to talk about yourself should be avoided.
Formal qualifications are just the first step. Finland has placed a keen focus on qualifications in the past, but this is slowly beginning to change. In other countries, competence has been valued over degrees for quite some time. That’s why it’s important to tell about yourself: what you can and want to do.
It’s important to tell about yourself: what you can and want to do."
Tailoring a position specifically for the candidate is still rare. Person-centered roles are more common in small and startup companies, while the organization comes first in the case of larger companies.
There’s a wide variety of training, handbooks, and courses on offer for job seekers, and people are well aware what to do at a job interview: dress appropriately; avoid the dead fish handshake; make eye contact; ask questions that show you’ve done your homework on the company; pause for a moment before answering; smile, but don’t double up with laughter; question, but don’t be a show-off; and so on.
The main thing is to be yourself, or actually your work-self. Don’t open up too much.
According to Tuomas, who has plenty of experience in recruiting people at Kone, job application trends are easy to spot. At times everyone’s interested in working “close to the customer interface.” Now passion is the buzzword. In light of job ads, being passionate seems to almost be the main criterion for any job, applicants trying hard to prove it in one way or another.
“Passion is a pretty strong word, but of course you need to be interested in the job”, assesses Tuomas.
Pekka Mattila thinks it can be a little suspicious, if applicants are passionate about a job, especially if they don’t even have the experience.
“Cheap talk about passion is not enough. Only a few people are genuinely passionate. After all, sometimes being passionate takes the form of quiet, persistent doing”, adds Välikangas.
AALTO UNIVERSITY POINT OF VIEW - Kaleidoscopic careers
DBA Riitta Lumme-Tuomala
Head of Growth
Director, Russia and Talent Management
Reading the points of the article's experts through the lens of talent management, my research area, I can say that the nail really has been hit on the head. (Talent Management is "simply" right people in the right place at the right time.)
Boxes where employees are placed, we call them job descriptions, should be moved to the attic, at least mentally, together with the competency lists drawn through an arduous process at the HR department. Instead, we should start looking at careers and jobs as puzzles, where many pieces move at the same time, and the only way for a promotion is not up the ladder, but sideways and back and forth, too. This suits many, who like Liisa Välikangas do not make a difference between the work box and the leisure box, and those who want to be flexible at different phases of their life adjusting work periods to travels and e.g. new kinds of temporary occupations
Not being expected to become a team leader or a boss after so and so many years as an expert, is a relief to many. You can, namely, be considered a talent or a key player even if your career aspirations do not include leading a team. On the contrary, actually; knowing yourself and being aware of your own strengths and how to use them, is one of the traits of a talent! Different types of careers and aspirations have to be allowed and respected, and opportunities should be looked for across (eventual) silos. Also, as Pekka Mattila points out, the boss should not expect to be able to occupy the corner office until retirement, but see talented individuals as a key to the future success of the company and make sure they get the support and challenges they need to excel!
Courage is called for in terms of trusting what does not meet the eye in a CV. The experience, competencies and skills the person acquired in the past might or might not be transferable to the new context. We normally see what he or she has done but not how. Is the person curious, willing to learn, able to share information? Also what Kerttu Tuomas alerts about "CV jargon" is a valid point; clichés take you nowhere.
Stars and talents
The core of talent management is to know what a talent means in your company, to understand how to deploy, develop and keep them. It is a dynamic process; are the talents we need today stars of tomorrow, and do we really understand the huge changes we are facing as to work and how those impact our own environment.