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The career ladder has fallen from beneath your feet. What to do?


Back in the day you would join a company, possibly after leaving university, behave yourself, follow the company rules, be incrementally promoted and then retire with a gold carriage clock. Well, those days  are over; they ceased in the late 80s and early 90s, when companies downsized their white-collar workforce. As companies thinned out, management positions disappeared and most have not come back since.

Over that period, for example, General Electric, hired engineers straight out of school, who went through a career which included managerial training. Over time, the company began to bulge with managers and Jack Welch laid off thousands in an exercise of ‘delayering’. With those managers gone, most of the ‘next steps’ in the career ladder moved a couple of rungs out of reach.

However, we still have faith in the idea of career ladders and most firms (just look at the job ads) still promise traditional careers with non-stop advancement, but there simply cannot be an easy next step for everyone who wants a promotion.

Managers are naturally inclined to keep their best employees in their current position, which they feel can promote organisational stability. So, it is probably better to try and think of career moves in new ways.

Look laterally for career moves. Don’t think of your job description as something rigid; for example, a financial analyst might want to consider other analyst positions within their company, possibly in market research or sales; it is easier to move within a company where you are a known factor. Horizontal experience can also broaden your skills, which improve your chances of moving up.

Prove you can handle a promotion. Volunteer to help your manager with components of their job and learn to do them well. This might include offering to interview job candidates, or training new staff, which could help you for the next manager’s role.

Grow your skills to grow your job. Seek out and take advantage of opportunities when they appear and actively exceed expectations. This might include offering to coach people in groups, or one-on-one in an area you are interested in; it could be IT or a foreign language.

So the world has changed, but perhaps a world without defined career ladders allows to better take control of your career and that can only be a good thing.

Sometimes, we are forced to step off the career ladder, possibly for maternity reasons, or redundancy and it can be a struggle to get back on. But there is a decent alternative and that is entering the world of the ‘supertemp’.

It can be a very scary prospect, thinking you may never have a permanent job again. But there is an alternative; jump off the career ladder to actually further your prospects. ‘Supertemps’ can be top-level managers who come to realise that they may be better off financially and emotionally, working for different companies on a project-based or temporary contract.

Jody Miller, co-founder of Business Talent Group (BTG), an agency that pairs up companies with independent business professionals, says: “They want to choose what type of work they do and for whom. Ultimately they want to be in control of their own life.”

A recent survey by the IIM said 22% of interims quote unemployment as the trigger for making the move, but 70% give professional and lifestyle choices as the principal driver. Miller is not surprised, saying most of her clients say a better work-life balance is the reason for the switch.

Despite McKinsey stating 58% of US companies intend to use more temporary arrangements at all levels, Miller believes there is still a stigma attached to temporary work at executive levels. “The idea that a person who works on a project basis is is not as successful or as ambitious as someone who sticks to the corporate culture is not true, but it is something that is still part of conventional business thinking.”

“My clients could stay in the corporate world if they wanted to, they just choose not to.”

In Europe, where more stringent labour laws exist, temporary work is even more widespread as companies are reluctant to hire permanent staff, says Miller. She says that although the majority of this work is in the middle tier or below, it is now spreading in the high end.

According to consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton, the UK market for interim managers is one of the best developed, accounting for as much as $1.8 billion in revenue in 2009; and across Europe, annual growth in the market for interim executives has been over 20%.

But people need to know that to  wants to ensure that breaking free from the corporate shackles does not come come stress free. The hardest time of an assignment is often at the end, where there comes the realisation there may be no more work.

Miller believes most supertemps share some key characteristics that help them succeed. She says: “These people like to go in and make an impact quickly. They have specific skills and they like variety and a challenge. They can work as an outsider as well as being able to gain people’s confidence and they are natural self-starters who are able to network easily,”

Although the current economic downturn has resulted in an increasing number of managers and executives being let go, thus saturating the supertemp market, Miller is hopeful for the future.

“Companies will start realizing that it is more cost effective and more productive to hire the best possible team for a specific phase, and understand that such a team might not be the team which will manage the next phase,” she says.

“I think the corporations that embrace that will be the ones that will do best in the future.”

So, get your confidence up, learn to network better and resign. The career ladder is broken and you can strike the right work-life balance by doing something else. Good luck.

Nigel Phillips


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