Getting started on a non-career career


Careers are everything. Jobs are somewhat looked down upon. At least, that’s the way it’s been through most of my adult life (yes, I’m a dreaded baby boomer).

Career-primacy is what’s led to the notion that everyone ought to have letters after their name — and lots of them. When I entered full-time employment in 1974, Grade 12/13 (depending on which province you graduated in) was more than good enough. By the early 1980s, you needed to have a Bachelor’s degree — any “B” was fine, and many had three-year BA or BSc degrees. Later in the 1980s it became the four year degree only, and specifically one in the field that mattered. (This is when the disdain for the Humanities really started to seep in, along with the “job readiness” movement in academia.)

Today? A Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, some industry certifications — these are the price of admission. Keep adding to the pile throughout your lifetime, as the requirements will keep going up (and with computers scanning résumés, there’s no one to argue that your thirty years’ experience more than makes up for not having more letters after your name).

But have you noticed, as well, that the word “job” — which for about 40 to 50 years indicated a “second-class citizen” of sorts (plumbers had jobs, “real people” had careers, with steady advancement in title to show for it) — has made a comeback?

That’s because more and more of us don’t work in organizations. We either start one (the entrepreneurial or small business route, and, yes, they’re not the same thing) or we become a freelancer — a contractor, independent consultant, or the like.

One in two people in Toronto (Canada’s largest city, and North America’s fourth-largest) doesn’t work in an organization. They have a “job”. Think about that. Careers are slip-sliding into history to return to their former percentage of the whole world of work.

Now, on top of being Ms. or Mr. BA, MPP, MBA, CMC, CHRP, CGA (or some such chain of alphabet soup) and seriously considering a PhD to “stay competitive” (while finding that the number of slots for ‘part-time’ or ‘executive program’ PhDs can be counted on the fingers of one hand), getting your résumé read and past the robots in charge (unfortunately, human recruiters increasingly deal with the sheer volume of enquiries by acting like their computerised scanning program counterparts) also requires that you have an unbroken track record of advancement in name-brand organizations. The real world, where your career has been fractured by acquisitions (and layoffs occurred to meet financial requirements, without reference to your contribution), bankruptcies (the average length of time a company stays in the S&P 500 is now around 15 years, and falling), outsourcing, offshoring, etc. cannot be allowed to intrude.

No wonder so many end up as consultants! There, what matters isn’t your unbroken career, but the projects you’ve done and the references you can provide from satisfied clients. (This, too, is far more like a plumber than the pathway to mahogany row.)

So, newly-minted graduate or seasoned pro trying to remake themselves, how do you start on a non-career career?

Well, first, you decide whether you’re setting up shop as an entrepreneur or as a small businessperson. (Even in “Me, Company of One”, this difference persists.)

Entrepreneurs are out to change the world. The firm may be small and never get large, but its eyes are always on the global market. A friend of mine went to Thailand, acquired some technology from its creators, partnered with an immigrant to California, and has started building a business with an eye to becoming the equivalent of a German Mittelständ company, outrageous market share globally in a mid-sized company. He runs this from Vancouver, is financed from New York, and life is spent on airplanes and in hotel rooms. The thought of putting the whole thing together in one location has never entered his mind, since his plans involve a global footprint anyway.

Instagram was at 20 people when Facebook paid a billion or so for it? That’s the entrepreneurial raison d’être: global reach, and the payday at the end (either from growing to go public, or from vending the firm to deep pockets).

The small business, on the other hand, seeks to provide its owner with a job, but without grandiosity. It’s the consultant who prefers to sleep in her or his own bed much more than gaining hotel points. It’s the creator of a neighbourhood fish & chips or coffee shop that doesn’t have dreams of franchisees lining up to “replicate the success story”, but is happy with making this location a place you come to, thanks very much.

There is no shame and great reward in either track, but first, know which one you’re on (because in the early going they look an awful lot alike). Obviously, your small business outlook won’t keep you, when you’re establishing yourself, from living in a hotel room and doing a gig out of town (you need early positive client references and you need to have an income!) but unlike the entrepreneur, a global “thought leader” brand isn’t why you took this project on. The entrepreneur consultant might still take that same project, but they’re gathering material for the keynote speech, the book, the articles in the trade journals, and the other tools of acquiring a global name for themselves.

As your references grow, your non-traditional résumé becomes less and less of a factor. So, too, do the letters after your name — some certifications or professional association programs can be helpful, but few are asking after the multiple graduate degrees (unless you’re the entrepreneurial consultant, who will need them for various visas). That “keep reality at bay” motif of modern corporate hiring means that your life of demonstrated independence makes you unemployable in BigCo on the corporate track anyway (at least, until you can be parachuted in near the top as a saviour, as often happens to senior consulting types or academics in business schools). But that — like being the “fix it executive”, going from one broken situation to another — is consulting with benefits, golden handshakes, stock options and other perks of top end corporate life, and nothing more.

So here’s my bottom line on this: always be thinking about whether you’re an entrepreneur or a small business type (know yourself) even if you’re on the corporate career ladder right now. Keep mulling over ideas for ventures so that you don’t fall into contracting or consulting out of despair.

For if there’s one truth, it’s that BigCo isn’t secure. Not anymore.

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One thought on “Getting started on a non-career career

  1. Pingback: Dealing with the Dual Economy | The Anderson Leadership Group

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