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The Definition of a Career

Various dictionaries provide numerous definitions for the noun “career,” however “pursuing one’s life work” is a common thread. According to Dictionary.com,12 a career takes on various meanings as a noun:

  • “an occupation or profession, esp. one requiring special training, followed as one’s lifework: He sought a career as a lawyer.”
  • “a person’s progress or general course of action through life or through a phase of life, as in some profession or undertaking: His career as a soldier ended with the armistice.”
  • “success in a profession, occupation, etc.”

Merriam-Webster.com13 offers similar definitions, such as:

  • “a field for or pursuit of a consecutive progressive achievement especially in public, professional, or business life <Washington’s career as a soldier>”
  • “a profession for which one trains and which is undertaken as a permanent calling <a career in medicine> <a career diplomat>”

At IBM, these traditional views of a career are changing. As the technology industry continues to expand at a rapid pace and clients’ IT environments become increasingly complex, today’s employees need to be more multi-faceted, with a varied and versatile set of skills developed over time. No longer can a career be looked at as something that is undertaken as a “permanent calling.”

In today’s business arena, technical aptitude alone may not always be sufficient. There is a requirement for people to widen their portfolios of job roles, skills, and experiences to be applied and recombined in numerous ways to fuel innovative business value.

According to Ranjay Gulati, who wrote in a Harvard Business Review article in May 2007, “Rather than highly specialized expertise, customer-focused solutions require employees to develop two kinds of skills: multi-domain skills (the ability to work with multiple products and services, which requires a deep understanding of customers’ needs) and boundary-spanning skills (the ability to forge connections across internal boundaries.)”14

Although a life-long career as a specialist in a particular area is still needed and valued, marketplace demands suggest that some segment of the employee population needs a wider breadth of skills. This may enable—and/or force—employees to switch career paths over time to complementary or totally different job roles where new skills must be continually learned.

A career framework can facilitate both types of progression paths, whereby employees can grow in their careers either vertically in one area of specialization or horizontally across multiple areas of specialization over the course of time. Figure 2.2 shows this vertical and horizontal career progression.

Figure 2.2

Figure 2.2 Examples of two career paths.

Figure 2.2 depicts the career path of a consultant, Jane Doe, who starts out as an associate consultant and over time continues to grow her consulting capability through working on multiple engagments, increases her expertise via formal learning and on-the-job training, and takes on more responsibility as her job position matures. At the appropriate time, as she works her way up the consultant career ladder, has many client experiences, and receives various promotions over a number of years, Jane eventually becomes an executive consultant and is recognized as an expert in her field by not only her manager and peers, but by the client as well.

It should be noted that there is not necessarily a right or wrong time period for how long it may take an individual to go up the career ladder. It is determined by the individuals, their performance, the experiences they receive, the skills and capabilities they develop, and of course, the needs of the business. It may take many years to build the right capabilities needed to perform at the next level of any particular job role.

In contrast, John Smith, although he also starts out as an associate consultant, at some point he decides to branch out and leverage the project management skills he developed as a consultant by leading client engagements. He hears that project managers are in demand, given that the company is moving toward a project-based business. He also likes the planning aspects of the consulting role and wonders if he might be suited as a bona fide project manager. He explores this with his manager, who encourages John to think about becoming more versatile in building his capabilities. John subsequently decides he wants to change career paths and actually become a project manager. He works with his manager to put an individual development plan in place and identifies the additional skills and on-the-job experiences he needs to become competitive for a project manager job role.

John completes different learning activities to increase his skill in managing projects. He also works with his manager to be placed on the appropriate consulting projects to get increased experiential, on-the-job training. Once he has built more than just a beginning level of capability in managing projects, he finally takes on a project manager role, and over time, he gains sufficient expertise as a project manager and becomes competitive for promotion. Now John not only manages the project by tracking timelines, putting work breakdown structures in place, and managing to the project plan, but given his expertise as a consultant, he also gets involved with the consulting teams in expanding business opportunities. His more versatile set of capabilities has enabled him to expand beyond the expected career path and use more of the many skills he has acquired, rather than focusing specifically on his technical abilities.

Each career starts out in a similar fashion, but eventually these two individuals follow different paths that both result in success and fulfill a need for the company, the client, and the employee.

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