Know What Kind of Careerist You Are
Executives who combine work and family emphasize the importance of defining success for themselves. In our last blog post, we talked about objective versus subjective success — the difference between your quantifiable, Wikipediable list of accomplishments and your day-to-day emotional and intellectual pursuits. Like everyone else on the planet, you have only 168 hours per week to spend. So it’s important to strategically allocate your time to the objective goals that will bring you the most subjective satisfaction.
But what brings satisfaction? It’s different for different people — even at the same workplace, even in the same role. If you’re trying to answer that question about yourself or your employees, here’s a helpful framework from Managing the New Careerists, by former BYU management professor C. Brooklyn Derr. Though the careerists aren’t so new anymore (the book came out more than 25 years ago), Derr offers an interesting historical perspective on the rapidly changing world of work — and keen insights about human nature, which evolves much more slowly. He outlines five “career orientations,” which tend to shift over time, depending on life circumstances:
Getting ahead. People who are motivated by upward mobility focus on promotions, raises, making partner, and increasing their authority. They’re competitive and willing to put in long hours and negotiate office politics to win those rewards. This is the default career model in the U.S., which means that it’s easy for those who want to get ahead to explain themselves to bosses, colleagues, and family. Also, almost everyone who is just starting out in a career has this priority. It’s usually around age 30, give or take a few years, that people begin to explore other orientations.
Getting secure. Those who seek regularity and predictability in their work environment are motivated to fit in with others and uphold group norms. They avoid risk and are less concerned with advancement than with career control. If this description has you rolling your eyes, you’re not alone. It’s difficult for people to admit they want this kind of security, because it sounds like the life of a corporate drone, which no one wants to be. That’s especially true today, given the rise of the free agent in all industries. But people motivated by security are loyal and willing to put in extra effort when the situation requires it — not just when it will bring them glory.
Getting free. Derr describes people with this orientation as “hard to work with, impossible to work for, slippery as eels to supervise and manage, and infinitely resourceful in getting their own way.” People who value getting free want autonomy and self-direction. They have less tolerance for regulations, status reports, and other forms of bureaucracy than those in the “getting secure” camp. Like getting ahead, the desire to get free is widely understood and even admired, at least in the U.S. However, people who are motivated by freedom must pay their dues before they can have autonomy. Even if getting ahead isn’t your primary orientation early on, when you’re still building your reputation, some argue that it makes sense to act as if it is. Once you’re established, you can shift gears and strive for deeper rewards.
Getting high. These are people who care deeply about deploying their expertise, solving problems, creating new things, and feeling engaged. They are ambitious and sometimes idiosyncratic. Unlike professionals intent on getting ahead (who might take on boring but important assignments in order to win favor with clients or managers), those motivated mainly by getting high will gravitate toward work that provides greater stimulation, even if it’s low-profile or high-risk. They’ll also trade a certain amount of autonomy for an exciting or meaningful job — they might join the military, for instance—which a person with a “getting free” orientation probably wouldn’t do.
Getting balanced. Have you been nodding along, thinking that there’s a bit of truth and desirability in each orientation? That means you’re motivated by balance. People with this orientation want to enjoy objective career success, personal development, and close relationships, and they’ll strive to achieve all these goals over time. They are unwilling to sacrifice a personal life to career demands, but they’re also unlikely to coast in a job for which they are overqualified to free up their time at home. They want challenge, and fulfillment, both on and off the job.
Derr says that getting balanced is the most common orientation but points out that only some people seem genuinely motivated it. Others have balance thrust upon them, as it were, and simply know that they have to make career sacrifices for the sake of their families, or postpone relationship or personal goals until certain job priorities are met.
Career orientations often draw people to certain lines of work, but it’s not as simple as saying that programmers are motivated by one thing, salespeople by another. People can be attracted to the same industry or job for many different reasons, and those reasons may change over time. Even the most ambitious careerist, in the midst of a health or family crisis, might find balance and security more important than promotions or intellectual thrills.
Try using Derr’s framework as a tool for career planning — and for management. Learning what truly motivates your employees can help you assign people to the right projects, develop them appropriately, and retain them.
Boris Groysberg is the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Faculty Affiliate at the HBS Gender Initiative, and the coauthor, with Michael Slind, of Talk, Inc. (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). Twitter: @bgroysberg.
Robin Abrahams is a research associate at Harvard Business School.
Know What Kind of Careerist You Are
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