The case against career planning

Linear career trajectories are, arguably, incompatible with the twenty-first century

Seek to transplant your skill-set into new territory and be ready to manoeuvre

For many, the path from university lecture theatre to a seat on the board seems clear enough, if you can get the intervening stages right. But the structures of companies are changing, and as organisations get flatter, the greasy pole may become a distant memory.

Moreover, many experts believe that the notion of a linear career progression will be incompatible with a twenty-first century shaped by the emergence of new economies, technological disruption and economic fluctuations beyond our individual control. So here are some tips for adapting to the new climate.


If you can’t predict the future, being able to identify your strongest skills and how they can be applied to unique and imaginative contexts can be key. According to Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, who coined the term “disruptive innovation”, new markets may be found simply by harnessing old technologies in new ways, not just through the ability to develop new technology. AirBnB has owed its success, for example, to “a series of small iterations,” Golden Gate Ventures’s Vinnie Lauria told Forbes.

On an individual level too, working out how to transplant existing skills and expertise into new contexts may be the enduring key to success.


The problem is our tendency is to think of our career progression as linear, argues digital marketer Mitch Joel. We imagine the executive position we’d like and work backwards to work out how we can attain it.

But aside from structural changes to the internal hierarchies of companies, it is almost inevitable that the climb upwards will be more difficult than you might have anticipated. An iterative approach can accommodate set-backs which a linear plan does not.

“Begin with a direction, based on a real desire,” Schlesinger, Kiefer and Brown argue in the Havard Business Review, “and complement that with a strategy to discover and create opportunities consistent with that desire.” This involves “determining your desire, taking a step towards it, incorporating what you’ve learnt from taking that step and repeating this until you have achieved your goal.”

To fully take advantage of an iterative strategy, in his book Ctrl Alt Delete, Joel suggests working on numerous projects at once, perhaps with numerous organisations.


Our fixation with job titles is perhaps outmoded, given the transience of top positions in publicly listed companies. If performance figures are down, investors will demand a shake-up. Since 2000, the tenure of the average chief executive of a Fortune 500 company has been slashed from ten years to just five, so the best rarely retire out of top positions. In an age of brands, recognising the mileage in a company can be a way to climb quickly within your industry, especially as internal hierarchies are demolished.

The collective vision of a firm may be much more powerful than your ambition as an individual. “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on,” said Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her address to Harvard Business School in 2012, recalling advice given to her by Google’s Eric Schmidt.

“When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in,” Sandberg said. In just 17 years, Google has risen to become one of the world’s largest companies, so seeing the potential in a startup could be your ticket.

Tube strike saviour

Santander Cycles

Likely to be of service during today’s travel disruptions, Santander’s Cycles app sends a release code to your mobile so you can access TfL’s bikes without fussing at the docking station terminal. It provides up-to-the-minute information about which terminals have free bikes and where there are free spaces to dock once you’re done.

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