My career path has been an unusual one. I started as a secretary on Wall Street, worked my way up in my firm’s investment banking group and then stepped back to become an equity research analyst. Eight years later, I quit that job to produce a TV show and write a children’s book, but I ended up blogging about work/life issues and co-founding a hedge fund backed by a man I’d met at church. It’s not what you’d call a traditional corporate trajectory. But perhaps that’s the new normal.
In the United States and many other developed, capitalist countries, the idea of a “company man” (or woman) with a job for life has long been outdated. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median job tenure for American workers age 25 or older has held steady at about five years since 1983, and for men it has slightly declined.
Career change isn’t as easily documented, because it’s harder to define than a job switch. But many economists and sociologists think that these bigger shifts are becoming more common, and case studies to support that hypothesis abound.
Consider Liz Brown, once a hard-charging law firm partner who left Fish & Richardson to become executive director of an angel investment network and a professor. Then there’s Alex McClung, whose 23-year career has spanned 15 diverse roles at six different health care companies; and Heather Coughlin, who started her career in equity sales at Goldman Sachs, helped it launch a third-party research subsidiary, and is now CEO of a mother-and-baby support, education and retail chain.
It’s hard to make sense of seemingly wanton – yet ultimately rewarding – career choices like those, until you consider the theories of the man I met in church: Clayton M. Christensen.
Christensen is the father of disruptive innovation – the idea that the most successful innovations are those that create new markets and value networks, thereby upending existing ones. Our investment fund focuses on disruptive stocks, and it has outperformed relevant indexes by a sizable margin over the past decade.
I believe that disruption can also work on a personal level, not just for entrepreneurs who launch disruptive companies but for people who work within and move between organisations. Zigzagging career paths may be common now, but the people who zigzag best don’t do it randomly.
Not everyone has to abandon the traditional path, of course. But if as an individual you’ve reached a plateau or you suspect you won’t be happy at the top rung of the ladder you’re climbing, you should disrupt yourself for the same reasons that companies must.
First and foremost, you need to head off the competition. As you continue to improve along the dimensions of performance that the employment market has historically valued, you risk overshooting demands. What you do reliably, if not brilliantly well, can be done just as effectively by many peers – and perhaps more swiftly and affordably by up-and-comers.