How Applying Business School Thinking About Careers Can Help You Get Ahead


In a previous article I wrote about trends in business school ideas about careers – on human potential, organizational careers, boundaryless careers, strategic human resource management and career ownership. It may be nice to know about these trends and their influence, but how can you apply them in your own career? Three of them commonly underlie an organization’s approach to your career. The other two can help you in your own approach.

Discussing career ownership with Brazilian executive students. Photo permission of Tania CasadoTania Casado

Organizational careers: These careers, espousing job security and promotion opportunities for everyone, are now found mainly in the public sector and education. Employers often emphasize diversity in their recruitment and promotion efforts. However, the career systems tend to be relatively bureaucratic, and promotion opportunities can be limited. Colleagues may expect you to adopt a collective, rather than an individual, mindset, and some employers engage in an unsound practice of paying present salaries from future pension obligations. In this kind of career system, you need to stay on top of what’s happening in your organization and keep asking if it’s right for you.

Boundaryless careers: These careers, anticipating persistent innovation and employment mobility, appeal to employers who resist long-term assumptions about organizational careers. Those employers are often start-ups focused on short-term survival, or are in industries like construction or software development where employment arrangements occur one project at a time. The boundaryless career approach is also favored by organizations seeking a high level of innovation, and uncertain about how that will affect future jobs. Boundaryless careers can be ideal if you want to keep pace with a changing economy, seek new learning opportunities, or pursue self-employment.

Careers driven by “strategic human resource management:” Here, you must recognize your organization is playing hardball. It has done its homework on which employees are “keepers” and assigned them to its internal talent pool. You need to know if you’re in that pool or not, and in either case you need to exercise your own strategy. Is staying put a good thing for now, or is it time to move on? Your answer will be driven not only by your place in the organization, but also by where you’d like to take your career, your family situation, and the learning you are gaining. If you determine it is time to leave, be sure to do so on good terms. That means giving adequate notice, and making sure to fulfill outstanding project commitments.

Bringing in human potential: According to many observers, Maslow’s five-level hierarchy of needs from physiological at the bottom to “self-actualization” at the top still makes sense. (If you need a brief recap, the “simply psychology” website provides one.) It may be useful to reflect on where you stand on the way to greater personal growth in your career. It may also be useful to reflect on where your bosses, mentors or colleagues stand, and to ask better questions, or provide more helpful or more timely social support. Remember that you can also grow outside the workplace from being a parent, or from volunteer work related to issues or causes that are personally important to you.

Exercising career ownership: This final activity can embrace all of the above. You may feel too deeply invested in an organizational career to move on, but still be able to have your organization offer more flexible career arrangements to others, or be open to different arrangements for newcomers. Remember that taking ownership of your career means looking beyond work to your life as a whole, and so to the interdependent relationships you hold with collaborators, family, elected officials (and your role in electing them) and information providers. Wherever you look, you can stand up to persistent streams of dis-information, and help raise the quality of political debate. Across your work and your life, you can make a difference!

Author’s note: I am grateful to a small group of Brazilian executive students whose discussion helped shape this article: Lenir Behrend, Fernanda Chaves, Fabiana Kawada, Julianna Lima, Carla Sauer, Maria Schneider, Marcelo Sobral and Samanta de Sousa, along with their professor Tania Casado.

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