Career choices: a linear path or add a little colour?

By Heidi Sundin

Looking for a role is a challenging process. As I’ve looked for roles at different points in my career I’ve often had the feedback ‘you’re very colourful’, ‘I don’t know how to place you as you’ve done lots of different things’, ‘you need to pick one path to go down’.

A linear career path takes more of a straight line with fewer twists and turns into related or different fields. There are loads of benefits to taking a more linear approach such as incredible depth of knowledge in one subject matter area or skill set, networks specific to your subject matter, building a portfolio of demonstrated success in an area, developing heuristics to create short cut solutions when familiar problems arise, and clear next steps in your career.

It is always a delicate balance to strike between working on something that you love and are passionate about, making money, and making ‘sensible’ choices that enhance your CV. For many people the linear path will be aligned with their passions and that’s wonderful, but for many others the steps in their career can take a more meandering path.

The advice one receives in making these choices is often conflicting, with “helpful comments” such as:

  • ‘There’s no such thing as a linear career path – don’t let anyone tell you that’
  • ‘Follow your passions’
  • ‘Life’s too short – love what you do’
  • ‘You need depth – stick with it even if you hate it’
  • ‘Choose a career based on the characteristics that are important to you’
  • ‘Keep moving – if you stay still too long you get overtaken’

Mostly in my career have taken a path that is winding. There are common themes and principles in my choices – I find really interesting and complex problems to solve where I believe I’m best placed to make a real and tangible difference through a strategic, engaging and collaborative approach, with disciplined project management and execution.

The question of whether to take a more linear career path or to follow your passions that may take you in different directions is a personal one to answer and comes down to what’s right and authentic for you.

One of my favourite books is Sideways To The Top by Norah Breekeldt. The book follows the paths of 10 exceptional women who have become leaders in their field – either CEOs or owners of their own firms. Breekeldt explores the concept that the path to the top is not linear and rather may require sideways moves. The sideways moves that these women have taken shows how they built their breath of skills, experiences and networks necessary for the CEO role – and got to the top in non-linear and unpredictable ways.

What makes you exceptional through your non-linear path?

As a non-linear candidate you can provide great benefits to teams and organisations – that are not always obvious from reading your CV. So if you’re like me and you’ve chosen a path that’s the road less travelled here are some of the great things that give you an edge to add to your narrative.

High level of comfort with uncertainty and agility: In today’s organisations with so much change, transformation, disruption and convergence of industries – if you’ve worked in lots of different environments it can often mean you are more comfortable with change and can adjust to restructures more easily. The fact that you have moved outside comfort zones could mean that you are more comfortable taking risks and going hard after opportunities.

Depth in variety: A non-linear path may also mean that you have depth in variety – you know about a lot of things. You may not be the subject matter expert on every topic but you know about how to bring the right people to the table, how to read situations and how to get things done regardless of the circumstances that you are presented with. You can figure out how to solve most problems – because you’ve worked in lots of different areas and usually have a diverse network that you can draw on.

See the linkages and make connections: You can connect the dots which is important for general management and leadership, work across multiple disciplines and speak the language of the disciplines that your people and teams are specialists in. You may see convergence opportunities – because you can draw on different industries and identify how they could fit together. This has the benefit for bringing new ideas and ways of looking at things to an organisation that may be doing the same things in the same ways.

Empathy and consensus building: Getting things done requires seeing the world from another person’s perspective, getting behind the language that a certain discipline may use, and really listening to what someone is saying. Personally I have worked for government, non-profit, academia, professional services and corporate – so I have the ability to try to put myself in the shoes of the person I’m negotiating with to understand what they are really trying to say. The non-linear path can often give you a deeper empathetic understanding that the linear may not.

In my view good organisations will build teams with a combination of employees and leaders with linear and non-linear backgrounds – as this provides a wonderful opportunity to bring new ideas, approaches and viewpoints to deep knowledge and experience.

My tips for the colourful

A couple of hints to make sure that you are able to keep moving forward, sideways, upside-down or which ever direction you would like:

Listen to feedback: Feedback is a gift and while sometimes the feedback you may receive during the recruitment process can be uncomfortable – it is very useful to understand how best to pitch your skill set and experience. Thank you to those recruiters who have taken the time to provide such frank and constructive feedback to me and other candidates.

Listen to yourself: Ultimately you’re the person who has to wake up every day and find inspiration to work on something – so listen to others but most importantly listen to yourself – choose a path that is not just about success but also about fulfilment.

Know your narrative: Since you may not always be the obvious choice it is important that you are well equipped to speak to your strengths, passions and the value that you can bring to an organisation. Make it easy for people to see why you’re the right choice, not necessarily the obvious one.

And finally a tip from Dominic Moore, specialist in search and recruitment:

Keep your networks fresh: Those who know you best know how to use your varied and complex skills to their fullest. Applying for roles when you are colourful can be difficult so be prepared to dig a bit deeper into the ‘hidden’ market to find the opportunities that make the most of who you are and what you do best.

I’d love to hear your stories on how you’ve made choices in your career. What has been some of the feedback, advice, comments you’ve received?

heidisundin.com

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