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.
More and more of us have discovered that our résumés don’t fit into a nice neat pattern any longer.
They’re punctuated: companies we worked for went out of business, were acquired (and we were purged as a part of “making the deal pay for itself”), or outsourced our jobs.
We’ve got bits and pieces of self-employment scattered in and around the jobs we’ve held. We’ve got multi-industry backgrounds, not necessarily by choice, but simply by having had to chase down a new position time and again.
There’s a lot of advice out there these days saying that this kind of broad background is precisely what employers want. So how come your résumé never gets past the scanner or low level clerk handling incoming applications?
(There’s also a ton of articles written about how CEOs value humanities degrees, because they create flexible thinking employees. Seen many of those on the CEO’s team lately? They’re not being presented as candidates by executive search or by being passed on by the CEO’s admin assistant or human resources VP. Going to the top, in other words, doesn’t get you past anything much these days.)
We are in an economy with a binomial distribution (for those of you who are not math-orientated, that simply means if you drew the data out as a curve, it would have two humps). You can be firmly in one or the other, but moving between them can be a nightmare.
Both are what people who do work in complexity call “fitness peaks”. You have to take on a lot of risk to leave a fitness peak and try to cross over to another one.
In one of the humps, or parts of the economy, or fitness peaks (they’re all the same thing), linearity rules. Here a résumé showing steady progression up career ladders, staying pretty much in one industry, with only occasional hops from one company to another, is the expected norm. People with a lot of outside experience, or a “difficult” résumé (if you’ve ever looked at yours and said “but the chronological sequence doesn’t really tell anyone what I have done”, you’ve got a difficult story to tell), are rejected as “not one of us” out of hand.
For companies that so far have avoided being eaten in the eat-or-be-eaten world of M&A, or for whom their markets haven’t fallen into difficulties yet, nothing has disturbed the equilibrium of continuing to do more of “what’s worked for us up to now”. Whether hiring you as a consultant, or hiring you for an open position, “fit” to norms will be everything.
Over in the other hump, all that diversity is definitely prized — as long as what it adds up to is (a) accomplishment and (b) proof you can dance. “Dance?” Yes, change, adapt, flex, and stay on the leading edge of changes in society.
Right now that second hump is smaller than the first one. But their relative sizes are changing. More importantly, the nature of work in the second hump is changing as it expands.
It’s not filling up, in other words, with companies offering nice jobs with all the perks that have “seen the light” that their old linear thinking was wrong. Instead, it’s filling up with opportunities to “do a little something”.
A growing number of positions these days depend on funding from grants, or shares of project results, or a host of other “risky” approaches. Now these situations also come (generally) with people in charge who recognize that somewhere you have to be bringing in a buck or three. The grocery store checkout clerk wants cash for food, not promises, share certificates, or “I’ll get paid when the foundation makes up its mind”. So they recognize that you’ll be living a portfolio life, where they don’t own you 24/7 and in turn someone else is putting a few coins in your jeans.
But the résumé you build living like that (I speak from experience, having done so for a decade now) is a nightmare for anyone stuck in the linear mould.
If you choose to build your prosperity over in linear-land, you’re taking on two big risks. One is that this zone is shrinking, not growing. It’s tied to the economy as a whole, and requires that it be growing most of the time for the linear model (in the private or public sectors, or in major not-for-profits) to be sustained. That’s not the economy we’ve had since 2008, nor is it likely to be one we’ll have anytime soon.
The other risk, of course, is that your particular employer (because you have to choose one to work at) prospers — and yet, at the same time, isn’t taken out of the game for its prosperity.
The risks over in portfolio-land are different. You might work hard and never see a dime. You might fall off the bleeding edge of change, not for lack of trying but because you just don’t get into the right things at the right time. You have no security day-by-day. But the hump is growing in size and complexity, so opportunity is growing here even though the economy as a whole isn’t.
Now, you may ask, what lies in between the two?
That’s the realm of traditional entrepreneurial life. Open a store, open a small factory, open a software house, you name it.
Ultimately these are preyed upon both by the big players in the economy (and especially governments looking for tax revenues: it’s the little guys who pay full freight on business taxes, not the big ones) and, if the entrepreneur isn’t careful, she or he misses out on the virtues of the portfolio world, too.
Bottom line: you can make a living in any of these zones, but you are taking on risks doing so. So which risk is greater (for you) and which risk do you want?