From TJ Magazine: The zigzag career path

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Written by Ryan Parker on 11 June 2019 in Features

Helping your people to grow as individuals and improve their careers in this VUCA world requires a new roadmap, says Ryan Parker.

Reading time: 3m 30s.

During a recent leadership development programme delivered to a group of very experienced and accomplished managers, one delegate expressed a sentiment that also proved all too common for others in the group. The delegate said: “This job is not for me, but it is paid work and I don’t know what else to do or where to go or how to make a change.”

It was an unfiltered expression of her frustration at simply treading water in the hope that something better will one day unexpectedly come along and change things for the better. It rarely does. Instead she, along with so many others in similar situations, risks becoming depressingly demotivated and dangerously demotivational.

Without a roadmap to help navigate growing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in career decision-making, career development can fail to serve the triangulated group of customer, shareholder and employee.

Such a roadmap can be neither so narrowly defined as to exclude all but the very best, nor so broadly drawn as to be mostly meaningless. It should instead aim at developing competencies applicable today and supportive of tomorrow. 

This is best done through a learning process that gradually synthesises understanding with growing clarity towards genuine career development agility. In so doing, also underscoring the vocational aspect of personal development.

This is no easy task.

It means finding the fundamental patterns and philosophies underlying successful career and personal development approaches and tailoring these to your own circumstances and organisational context. 

Patterns of progress

One abiding pattern is the ladder-like climb through the ranks. This philosophy assumes natural increases in knowledge and skill attained through easy-to-check measurables such as length of service and years of experience; a pattern and philosophy which may or may not still have its place, albeit in ever-rarer contexts.

Another well-ensconced pattern relates to the commoditisation of qualifications. It is similar in pattern to the ladder-like climb, but rather than relying on such aspects as age or company loyalty, it is founded on a philosophy of personal development and career growth through academic study.


This usually means expectantly pausing any hoped-for career progression for as long as it takes to get a quality qualification – a certificate which can then be marketed and successfully traded for a better position; a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder on the open market, sometimes cynically, sometimes happily.

The returns on what is a substantial investment are also becoming ever-more unlikely to be fully realised. The three letters MBA, for example, used to be especially rare and were therefore deemed valuable by business.

That time has passed; with 20% of business-school graduates in the US reporting to the country’s Graduate Management Admission Council that their course did not improve their earning power

It would not be surprising, then, if cynicism towards this roadmap builds among employees and employers alike, since it is neither a guaranteed ticket to meaningful personal and career development nor a guarantee of innovative thinking in an increasingly disruptive world.

Zigging and zagging

While still in its infancy, another pattern of development is growing in response to the shifting work-life landscape, especially in the west.

This can be described as more zigzag than ladder-like in shape. It involves planning a personal career development path with a series of career moves between roles that tend towards serving as ancillary (supporting) activities, and those roles which tend to serve the core (business) operations which yield actual income and final goods or services.

Although not quite yet a fully formalised career and personal development roadmap in all sectors, it is nevertheless one for HR practitioners and business leaders to keep an eye on, especially against the twin backdrops of exponential technological developments and new ways of contracting employees.

Both can act as catalysts for a positive feedback cycle where the employee is required to take more accountability for assessing the job market and anticipating future developments. This development is not a new idea: Douglas T Hall identified it as long ago as 1976 as a model response to uncertain times.

It is a mindset template for both personal and career development that underscores the importance of working hard towards gaining greater “knowledge about knowledge” or metaknowledge. A philosophy which coincidently aligns to Charan, Drotter and Noel’s famous leadership pipeline since they acknowledge the importance of the technical specialist in their model of a leadership pipeline.

This is an excerpt from this month's magazine. Get all our premium content - sign up for a free trial here.


About the author

Ryan Parker is senior consultant at Inspirational Development Group South Africa


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