Sunday, March 29, 2009

Career development and 'sublimation'

Since the words ‘career’ and ‘sublimation’ have many meanings/interpretations, let us begin by defining these terms - for the (limited) purpose of our discussion.

Career – pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement where one takes up positions of increasing responsibility, complexity & contribution

Sublimation - change directly from the solid to the gaseous state without becoming liquid (so we are using the 'Chemistry' meaning of 'sublimation' - as opposed that in 'Psychology')

Now that we have got the definitions out of the way, let us come back to the issue at hand. These days, it is quite common for people to skip some of the steps in (what used to be) the 'typical career path'. That is, they jump from a particular position to another position that is more than one step away/higher. So they transition directly ('sublimate') to a significantly 'higher' position without going through (what were considered to be necessary) intermediate positions.

These kind of career moves make a lot of sense in today's scenario - where many organizations are in state of flux - making traditional 'career paths' and 'career ladders' less relevant. Again, organizations are more open to this kind of career moves these days, especially where this results in cost saving and lower time to fill a vacancy. Of course, it makes eminent sense also from the individual's point of view - in terms of faster career growth.

So, if this 'sublimation' seem to make sense - from the points of view of both the individual and the organization - what is the issue? I think that this 'sublimation' can create problems - for the individual and for the organization.

For the individual, skipping intermediate positions in the career path can result in loss of learning opportunities - and some of these 'missed learnings' can prove costly - in terms of the adverse impact on long term career success and on personal effectiveness at work. Some of the intermediate positions might be key from a 'career & professional maturity' and perspective building (and wisdom development!) points of view. While the 'higher' positions will also provide valuable learning opportunities (may be even learning opportunities at a broader/'higher' level), they can't always substitute for the learnings provided by the intermediate positions. I would even speculate that time spent in the intermediate roles might have a positive impact on the 'ability to learn' - including the ability to learn from opportunities at a broader/'higher' level. The situation is not dissimilar to that of children who are 'forced' (e.g. by life situations) to grow up too fast. They manage to act like grownups - but often they have hidden flaws in their (psychological) development.

Often, after one has taken up a 'higher role' (in terms of organization hierarchy) it becomes difficult* (see the note below) to take up these intermediate roles - unless one moves to another ('bigger'/'more reputed') organization. So it is possible that these necessary learning opportunities are lost forever for the particular individual. Let me give a personal example. I moved to a global/corporate role in the Learning and Organization Effectiveness (L&OE) domain without spending time in a role that involves handling complete operational responsibility for the L&OE function/team at the business unit/country level. At this point, I don't really know what exactly have I missed because of this 'sublimation'. While I have tried to find this out by speaking to people who have handled such jobs (some sort of 'knowledge engineering'), I do feel that there could be significant gaps in my understanding! After all, there is a difference between understanding/wisdom (that is developed from actual experience) and knowledge.

This brings us to the problem of 'unknown unknowns' -a key side effect of 'sublimation' - which can create problems for both the individual and for the organization. Usually, 'unknown unknowns' are more dangerous than 'known unknowns'. Based on our discussion above, it can be seen that the 'sublimated individuals' can create serious risks for the organization. While the 'sublimated individuals' are usually very confident, their confidence often stem from 'simplicity on this side of complexity' as opposed to 'simplicity on the other side of complexity'. These 'unknown unknowns' can seriously undermine the quality of decision making. This becomes a major cause for concern when these individuals are in positions where their decisions can have high organizational impact. From the individual's point of view, a key risk is that of self-destructing their fast track careers! Other risks for the individuals include becoming too big for most of the roles available in their domain too early in their careers (limiting their options for changing jobs - see here for a related HR specific discussion) and of course that of 'reaching their level of incompetence' too fast/too early in their careers!!

So there can be problems/costs involved with 'sublimation'. But there are also potential benefits (as we have seen earlier). In addition to this, we should keep in mind that there are approaches like job rotations, stretch assignments and action learning projects that can provide accelerated career development while avoiding some of the problems associated with 'sublimation' - at least to a large extent. Hence it comes down to a cost benefit analysis - which can be highly context specific - both for the particular individual and for the particular organization - making a standard solution/recommendation difficult. But the awareness of the options and the possible problems/benefits can facilitate better cost benefit analysis and more informed decision making.

*Note: The difficulty in moving into a role that is 'lower' in the organizational hierarchy could be in terms of the possible adverse impact on salary, organization level etc. I do feel that the degree to which the difficulty is felt by an individual also depends on his/her outlook towards salary and career growth. The two extremes here are 'shape approach' and 'area under the curve approach'. It is essentially a matter of what one is trying to optimise - 'shape of the graph' or 'area under the graph'. Let me explain using salary progression as an example. Let us visualize a diagram ('salary graph') with salary on the y-axis and time on the x- axis.

Those who take a 'shape of the graph' approach/philosophy want to ensure that their salary goes up each time they make a job change (either within an organization or across organizations). So they want the salary graph to have a nice shape - with a positive 'slope' at all times. These kind of people will not want to take up a very high paying job if they feel that the salary growth is not sustainable and that they might have to take a pay cut later when they move from the very high paying job.

If we go back to our salary diagram (with salary on the y-axis and time on the x- axis), the area under the graph signifies the total earnings over a period of time/over the span of the career. It is apparent that what the people who take a 'area under the graph' approach/philosophy are trying to maximise is their total earnings/salary. These kind of people will take up a very high paying job even if they feel that the salary growth is not sustainable - so long as their total earnings (over the span of their career) are likely to be higher.

Of course, the above approaches ('shape of the graph' and 'area under the graph') apply not only in the case of salary but also in the case of other dimensions of career growth like 'size of the role' , 'position of the role in the organization hierarchy' and 'learning experiences provided by the role'. It is interesting to note that 'shape of the graph' approach/philosophy is reflected in many of the typical definitions of the term 'career' (even in the one that is given at the beginning of this post - as it talks about ' pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement' and about 'taking up positions of increasing responsibility'). But we have seen that this not the only approach possible or even the most effective one in today's environment. So if one takes the 'area under the graph' approach(which is more attuned to today's scenario), the 'difficulty' mentioned above can become much less significant.

Now over to you for your comments and suggestions!