It’s usual to think of a career as an upwards progression – hence the saying, ‘career ladder’. The notion that you start at the bottom and work your way to the top is ingrained in the way we think.
There’s a negative aspect to the assumption that all progression must be upwards. Just because you’re fantastic at a job doesn’t mean that you’ll be equally great at the job above you – in fact, you might suck at it. Yet, it’s assumed that this is the only valid direction in which careers move.
This notion is self-limiting and harmful. It may work for some people. After all, the last time we checked, no one is born as a sales director. You must get there somehow – and all that experience gained getting there is invaluable when you’ve arrived.
But for others, moving upwards into a position for which you are unsuitable can be a disappointing or even crushing experience. The star salesperson, energised by doing the deal, can be hopelessly adrift pushing a P&L and motivating dozens of others. A talented e-learning developer, motivated by a love of creating learning that really connects with people, can lose direction and purpose in a learning management role.
For every person who successfully climbs the career ladder, at least half a dozen others look back on their previous roles with more than a little longing.
The only way is not up
In the learning industry and learning departments, people are thankfully coming to realise that ‘up’ isn’t the only possible career choice. There are far more options.
A key thing to decide is how much the amount you earn is a part of your decision-making process. We’re all in it for the money, but we also all want to have a decent work/life balance. Where we sit on the money versus satisfaction scale differs from person to person.
With senior jobs certainly comes more money – but they also come with a great deal more responsibility. Longer hours, more stress – it’s part of the territory. Some people thrive on it, others don’t.
We’re not suggesting that a move to senior management means you’re selling your soul for the money, but it’s worth being aware that the top jobs are often the toughest – however it might appear from below, when you’re looking up at them.
There are other jobs which also pay well – sales, for example. Sales jobs can be even tougher and the rewards greater if anything. But the rub here is that you’re often only as good as your last month and a great percentage of your income is commission-based. That can be a lot of pressure in itself – some people can’t handle it, while others positively thrive on it.
It’s not all about the money
Another key factor is how good your interpersonal skills are. There’s no getting away from it, some people are better at leading others, at selling to others and at presenting to others. It’s a core part of their DNA. Some people just aren’t that comfortable in the same situation – so while they might have the subject-matter knowledge required to move into consulting, if they can’t communicate clearly – even persuasively – then they’ll struggle hugely in the role. Consulting is a balance – knowledge and communication.
But if you’re great at what you do – for example, an e-learning developer, instructional designer or whatever – and are verbally eloquent, confident with top teams and able to think on your feet, then consulting, business development, account management, client management and more are all valid options.
Then there’s what you enjoy doing. For some, moving from being a practitioner to a manager opens up a side of them which they never knew existed – they direct and lead with greater confidence than they expected. For others, the opposite happens. They can’t get used to others doing what they used to do and struggle to delegate, finding it hard not to interfere and micro-manage. If we go back to the scenario of a developer moving into consulting, a sign that this might be a good move is the enjoyment of presenting to others and the buzz of ‘selling the idea’. A sign that this was potentially a bad move is that the presentation was uncomfortable and stressful – and that it was a relief to get back to your desk. There’s nothing wrong with being a practitioner.
New jobs, new opportunities
These are interesting times in learning and development. The uptake of learning technologies is creating roles which didn’t previously exist. These are uncharted career paths, where few have been there, done that and got the T-shirt. There are also jobs where the most successful people can define not only their own roles, but how learning works within their organisation. Again, some people love this scope to succeed, where others prefer to work within a defined framework.
When making career decisions, it’s important to be self-aware – to know what’s going to be good for you, rather than taking the expected route. From most jobs, there are many more options than ‘upwards’ – some pay more money, some don’t; some provide more freedom, others a tighter framework within which to work; some put you in front of customers, some don’t.
At Blue Eskimo, we’ve placed people into some roles which were interesting sideways moves – a point from which their careers have really taken off, sometimes in unexpected ways. The key thing to bear in mind is that the only way is not up.