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The Better Path? Non-linear Careers

I’ve had at least 9 or 10 different types of roles in my career, in different industries. It’s fair to say that none of these were recommended by my high school guidance counsellor, and most of the roles didn’t exist “back in the day.” It’s also fair to say that my experiences from each and every role I’ve had contribute to the work I do today.

I suspect my career journey is pretty common. Some careers continue to follow a linear path, escalating mostly in seniority and scope, but non-linear career paths are what most of us have experienced or should expect in our work today and in the future.

Career development isn’t necessarily a ladder. In a video for Harvard Business review, Keyanna Schmiedl says it’s more like a rock-climbing wall – sometimes we move sideways (broaden our scope), and sometimes we step down or back to eventually climb higher somewhere else. You can visualize a way up when you start, but your path can change as you adapt. Sometimes you’ll choose based on your strengths, and sometimes you’ll go by intuition, just looking for a way to move forward.

What’s more, while a ladder implies that career progression is individual contributor to manager to leader, we need to make room for career growth for people who prefer not to be people managers – what does their growth path look like?

What is a non-linear job path?

A non-linear job path is intentional at each (or most) steps, but the steps are not a one-way or predefined path. It may involve sideways steps as you seek out a different work culture or move to an adjacent role type. Often, it involves moving into a different role entirely.

There are several factors that are driving this:

  • People are working longer. With extended careers and “semi-retirement” jobs, the likelihood that you will have a long career in one role at one company diminishes. Needs, interests, and even the types of jobs available change. To have a satisfying career, you need to plan for non-linear career paths that require lifelong learning and evolving skills requirements.
  • Companies are moving toward skills-based hiring and promotions. There are more ways to gain skills and experience and companies are more open to skills-based hiring and competency-based evaluations instead of standard minimal requirements, such as a university degree. Our idea of “qualifications” has evolved. This is actually a good thing for diversifying the work force with non-traditional workers and career switchers.
  • Work and roles are evolving. There are jobs and roles that will be needed in the future that don’t exist today. Waves of layoffs and hiring booms have changed the way we view work and careers, and they are also contributing to a need for people to take a non-linear career path. As a side effect, people have become less blindly loyal to companies (the idea of a “company man” is losing strength). Even existing roles will evolve in ways we might not be able to predict (think about how many people are looking at AI and wondering how it will impact their career). Shorter job cycles have become the norm, especially in high tech.
  • Career cadence is not one tempo. Career trajectories aren’t one speed/one direction much anymore. In reality, changing priorities might require you to slow down for a bit, or you may be in a place where are ready to accelerate your intensity.

A career awakening?

The Information Age changed career development to some extent, but the pandemic seems to have triggered more people to re-examine their careers, work-life balance, their relationship with their employer, and so on. A Gartner survey showed that 65% of people agreed that the pandemic shifted their attitude toward the importance of life outside of work.

Expectations about how, where, and for whom they want to work have changed. Whether people want to do something that is more strongly aligned to their values, to embrace remote working, or to try something new, it affects the types of roles they will consider. Non-linear career paths will offer benefits that weren’t considerations before.

There may be a generational component to the trend as well. Some believe that people entering the workforce now will follow career paths guided more by “purpose and passion” than “skills and experience”. While compensation and stability are still part of career building, the next generations may embrace sideways or downwards career moves, or complete jumps without some of the concerns held by previous generations.

What are the upsides?

There are upsides for people themselves and for the companies they work for in non-linear career paths. As Claudio Fernández-Aráoz summarizes it:

Non-linear job changes can tell a lot about several powerful emotional intelligence-based competencies — flexibility, adaptability, empathy, organizational awareness, and relationship management — that differentiate stars from average performers in new roles. Disruptive moves can also tell you a lot about potential because they show a candidate’s curiosity, insight, inspiration, and determination, which in turn indicate a search for learning and challenge.

It's a sort of nurturing disruption that delivers on growth and adaptability. In fact, within Volaris, fostering the non-linear is a strategic element of how we grow leaders. Each step sideways, up, or across brings with it new insights, experiences, and learning opportunities that ultimately help people to be better leaders.

For the people who seek this kind of career, they build “career capital” that can be spent in many different ways, leading to a more fulfilling work life.

How to support/develop purposeful non-linear careers

Let’s be honest, sometimes your career path is non-linear out of necessity or it proceeds organically, but the gains will be greater if you try to make career decisions with purpose:

  • Embrace your potential for further development. This requires some faith in yourself, and sometimes a scary leap. If you have leadership aspirations, know that your competition will be taking chances and showing their ability to succeed in multiple roles, so you’ll be compared to them on that.
  • Know your value and make sure you can show it. Be able to demonstrate those highly valuable transferable competencies that you have and that prospective employers need, like good judgement, problem-solving, leadership, curiosity, discipline, systems thinking, or creative thinking. By stepping outside of individual roles, you might be able to tell a bigger, more compelling story.
  • Be open to opportunities. Sometimes they show up when you aren’t looking. Often the really good ones will be a bit scary. But big or small, challenges are the way you’ll grow and the way you will figure out the kinds of roles you thrive in. Taking a chance may mean that you give up some security to take on some risk.
  • Seek momentum of purposeful work. Not on a career ladder, necessarily. Feeling complacent may be a good indicator that you have lost that momentum. Many people with interesting career paths will say that choices that looked risky didn’t feel risky because they were following professional passion, or seeking experiences that align with their values and interests.
  • As a manager, identify opportunities and provide psychological safety. Managers can play a key role in their team members’ career growth by looking ahead for opportunities inside or outside of their current path where they can learn and grow. Managers also need to allow for failure when someone moves into a new role where new skillsets and ways of thinking are required.

Alexander Nicholson offers some additional advice:

  1. Have situational awareness. Be aware of your circumstances, your team’s, the company’s. For example, knowing when you’re ready and able to take on a high impact greenfield project vs. on a learning curve where different work that will help you to learn might make more sense.
  2. Have a plan. Once you determine your direction, intentions, and opportunities, plan how you might off-load responsibilities to take on new projects, pitch new opportunities to show initiative, and set some guiderails on what to look for next.
  3. Communicate and set expectations. Share your interests and ambitions for your career with your manager and within your networks. In turn, mentor others who might want to do some of the things you already do. Commit to iterative and collaborative communications about your career journey.

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About the Author

As VP, Corporate Knowledge at Volaris Group, Sherry works closely with all of our organizations to capture & share best practices through peer programs, special sessions, portals, and communities. She also oversees Volaris Group platforms, technologies, and strategies that support our collaborative culture.

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