From Vertical To Liquid Career Paths

Meandros del Okavango

According to the thoughts of the sociologist and philosopher, Zygmunt Bauman, we live in liquid modernity where it is necessary to develop a flexible and versatile identity to tackle different changes that the individual must face throughout life.

The source of this reflection leads to extrapolation to the management world, specifically to career management by HR in organizations.

And in all likelihood, we are looking at one of the paradigms that must be rethought out promptly for people management. Career management, typically a vertical path, has prevailed in recent years and must be revised and redesigned accordingly.

5 Reasons to question the paradigm for the vertical career path

Even at the risk of generalizing, many professionals and organizations continue to idealize professional growth upwards vertically.

An academic degree, an MBA or specialized postgraduate education, the command of one or more languages and preferably international professional experience were until recently sufficient ingredients—together with high performance sustained over time—for gradually taking on responsibilities within any organization.

By and large we can say that a professional with a remarkable level of performance who has been “beefing up” his profile with these ingredients increased his chances of moving up the pecking order. It was just a matter of time. However in recent years, a good handful of changes make us realize that perhaps the probability of this paradigm for vertical ascent is qualitatively and quantitatively far smaller.

1. Talent Overbooking

The recession hitting most markets and industries has forced fairly severe organizational adjustments, targeted to reduce an unsustainable cost structure by lowering income or reducing profit margins in many businesses. Companies that brought in talent for ambitious expansion and growth projects encountered talent overbooking and consequently, the change of direction of the business left passengers stranded and waiting for the next flight.

After laying off employees with poorer performance, many companies continued their adjustments by dismissing many professionals whose qualifications and preparation were excessive for the dwindling complexity of business projects.

2. Inflated organization structures

The proliferation of graduates among baby boomers and Gen X has built up over the last decades in many countries more qualified human capital than ever. However, organizational growth often has limits hard to recognize. Limits that directly impact the growth of the organizational structure, logically becoming bottlenecks through which many professionals continue their vertical climbing to take on supervisory, middle or c-level management responsibilities. Companies that had designed years ago recruitment strategies to inject talent for ensuring growth and expansion, wondered how to feed that appetite for vertical growth of a sizeable percentage of their professionals.

In an attempt to “retain” talent within, many companies decided to make “room for everyone”, creating more layers of management and consequently inflating the hierarchical pyramid structure. It wasn’t difficult to find many organizations that become top-heavy and may I say, with “more bosses than worker bees”.

3. Idealized notion of professional status

But it was not only the companies who were responsible for creating this paradigm. The entire social model—the education system through to the blueprint of social values—contributed to idealize the fact that a satisfying career needed to culminate as a director of something or someone in a supervisory capacity; whether in a production environment or in the knowledge economy, holding the title of Manager was synonymous with success. In short, the ideal of vertical growth as equivalent social status was established.

4. Cutting down management levels

Meanwhile many professionals who remained in their companies and were not burnt by the market, saw how the “delayering” (reducing the number of organizational layers) process from the ensuing restructuring under way not only helped to delay or dissolve their opportunities for vertical growth within the company, but also often took them a step back down one or more rungs in the structure. Almost without warning the organization had begun to flatten and level out, restricting the possibilities for growth, vertically obviously.

5. Emerging collaborative organizational models and freelancers

As a result of these changing times, we began to see new management models. The need for innovation as a survival mechanism in a chaotic market and environment has given rise to organizational structures that foster co-culture (collaboration, conversation, communication and connectivity) and rely on social technology (internal and external social networks) as drivers of more open and collaborative organizations.

The networked organization is gaining ground over hierarchical organizations as an alternative, just as with many professionals, who in the absence of conventional employability options in a depressed labor market, have decided to become “freelancers”, “knowmads” as an alternative to recruitment as employed workers.

In short, over recent years many professionals, with exceptional performance and impressive qualifications in their bios, have seen how market swings pushed their companies to make unforeseen decisions in their roadmap which in turn drove them to a stagnating labor market until further notice. A market with few, if any, alternatives for professional growth, at least in the way they had been idealized years ago.

Vertical careers will not vanish; as long as organizational structures keep their pyramidal shape and return to growth (contained probably), there will always be alternatives to vertical growth.

However, it is not unreasonable to think that the chances of growing professionally in a vertical manner—even if these were to exist—will be lower.

Career choices may involve being an executive for several years, working as a freelancer delivering services with high added value for one or more client companies, returning to private enterprise as an interim manager, working on a project to network with other specialists, being a collaborator, a founding partner or an investor in a start-up even located in another country, generating and disseminating knowledge through virtual learning platforms, taking up employment in another firm, and more. Random combinations of such career choices, and others yet to emerge, will shape the liquid professional itineraries, unique to professionals moving through different territories and adapting to the increasingly rugged terrain of the marketplace.

It seems reasonable to think that the perceptible changes of recent years are transforming the notion of a “professional career” as we’ve known it so far.

It seems reasonable to demystify the idea that professional fulfillment is achieved by earning stripes and climbing up the steps of the pyramid—conceivably professional fulfillment may be achieved from multiple and diverse angles.

It seems reasonable to think that a career is becoming less of a career and more of an adventure, an endurance test, in the long-term with constant hurdles and unforeseen incidences in unchartered terrain that compels constant preparation and development of our skills and competencies. Also an emotional adventure in which, just as Bauman suggests, adapting to the environment, flexibility and versatility to face the changes are critical.

Let us be permeable to changes—it’s likely that the strength of our professional careers depend solely on whether our attitude is flexible, versatile, and liquid.

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