December 6, 2023


Careers Site

Climbing the career ladder is popular, but those on squiggly paths have the advantage, experts say

5 min read
Climbing the career ladder is popular, but those on squiggly paths have the advantage, experts say

This is the weekly Careers newsletter.

Radhika Panjwani is a freelance writer from Toronto.

Professionals who build skills, competencies and experiences in a non-linear career path will always have a competitive edge when it comes to meeting the demands of an evolving labour market, say experts.

How does a non-linear career look? It’s fluid. And may involve switching roles within the company or changing organizations and roles simultaneously, exploring different interests, working in other industries, working part-time or dipping a toe in entrepreneurship.

In their viral TEDx talk, Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper, co-founders of U.K.-based career consultancy Amazing If, say the era of earning a degree in one field and then purposely building an entire linear career off that with the goal of scaling a career ladder may be behind us.

Instead, they extol the virtues of a squiggly career. This route has unlimited opportunities and possibilities because, “success isn’t one-size-fits-all,” they say.

“The problem with career ladders is that they only go in one direction, and you can only take one step at a time,” Ms. Ellis said. “If progression purely means promotion, we miss out on so many opportunities that are around us. We need to stop asking only, ‘what job comes next,’ and start asking, ‘what career possibilities am I curious about?’”

Initially, their careers were heading on a linear path, but when they realized the career ladder was holding them back, they abandoned it. Ms. Ellis moved on from the magazine industry to the food waste sector. She worked four days a week and it freed up time to volunteer and take on other personal projects.

Tri-sector athletes

Much like the co-founders of Amazing If, early on in his career, Toronto’s Matthew Thomas found himself on a non-linear work trajectory. Although the squiggly career path helped him grow professionally, he admits at times it was hard and lonely trying to fit into different work cultures and incentives.

He wondered if others felt the same.

So, Mr. Thomas, an entrepreneur and partner at Deloitte and Nicholas Lovegrove, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, researched and published The Gifts of Breadth: Insights from Leaders with Non-Linear Careers.

Mr. Thomas interviewed 200 professionals (from the U.S., Canada and Hong Kong) whose resumes held a breadth of non-linear experiences.

“Our study showed people who willingly explore diverse, non-linear career paths may be better equipped to tackle complex issues in their organizations and society,” Mr. Thomas says. “For instance, if you’ve honed leadership skills in a non-profit setting, you can use those to inspire employees in a for-profit company. Likewise, if you’ve learned customer service and communication skills in retail, you can use them in government roles for better stakeholder consultations.”

Individuals who moved between industries, or the “tri-sector athletes,” (a term coined by Harvard University professor Joe Nye) exhibited several common traits. For starters, although they were experts in one field, they each had the innate ability to understand issues from differing perspectives.

“The most effective broad leader, therefore, is not one who is a ‘Jack-of-all-trades, master of none,’ but rather one that is a “Jack-of-all-trades, master of one” (or some),” Mr. Thomas says.

Additionally, the tri-sector athletes all had an array of transferable skills, such as problem solving, relationship building and project management, which are useful in every context. And findings show the non-linear stars were willing to take the “road less travelled” and in the process embrace consequent financial and career risks, Mr. Thomas says.

Squiggly tech route

After earning an undergraduate degree in computer science in Jamaica, Alexander Nicholson completed his master’s in computer science in Montreal.

His non-linear career route includes stints as a research assistant, data scientist and software developer. The roles span multiple countries, sectors and employers.

The Montreal native says changing jobs and career paths can help individuals broaden their skills and bolster their career capital.

“My suggestion [to all those considering non-linear path] is to take small, incremental steps rather than big moves,” Mr. Nicholson says. “You can search for opportunities to test the role or part of the role you would play after making a switch. This is important for seeing what the actual day-to-day job requires. Some things that have worked for me are taking on specific responsibilities in projects at work, starting side projects and volunteering.”

The recruitment roadblock

Mr. Nicholson says hiring managers must be open to candidates with non-traditional backgrounds and companies must consider an applicant’s transferable skills. But because of the legacy of the ladder, job applicants are still judged on which rung of the ladder they have scaled as opposed to what competencies they have.

In his newsletter, Dan Schawbel, an author and managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, a thought leadership and research agency, writes that skills-based hiring is gaining steam and has become a leading trend in recruitment because of the changing nature of work.

“With technology constantly evolving and the job market becoming increasingly competitive, employers are looking for candidates who have the necessary skills to perform the job and adapt to new challenges,” Mr. Schawbel writes. “In this context, an applicant’s academic qualifications and work experience, while important, are no longer the sole determining factor in their employability.”

Mr. Nicholson admitted Cal Newport’s book, So good they can’t ignore you, has been deeply influential to him. In the book, Mr. Newport, a Georgetown University professor, suggests the skills and knowledge you build during your career (or your career capital) are essential for designing a rewarding work life.

“More people should recognize that they have more valuable and transferable skills than they might think,” Mr. Nicholson says. “It takes luck and creativity, but it is possible to use the skills you possess to create a fulfilling career or contribute to community development.”

What I’m reading around the web

  • This blog on Careerigniter offers several tips on writing an effective cover letter, including how to grab the hiring manager’s attention.
  • This article on Gizmodo says taking a moment to recognize AI is already here and proactively building the skills needed for the future may help ease anxiety about it.
  • This PWC article discusses author Jenny Odell’s book, Saving Time, which questions the meaning of work and time and generational burnout.

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