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The Shape of a Career

Many of us have that sibling, cousin, or friend who just never seems to follow what we think a career should be like.  Perhaps they moved to Portland Oregon for the Voodoo donuts and nightlife on Mississippi Street, and will just get any job as long as they live in Portland. Maybe they moved to Holland Michigan for the beach volley ball on Lake Michigan in the summer and the winter sports. We might have described them as the “the black sheep”, or a “lost soul”. What about finding one’s purpose in work?  What about a sense of ‘calling’?  Are they just shallow people?

I confess these thoughts until I came across the work of Dr Kenneth Brousseau about 10 years ago. An HR colleague had brought his CareerView assessment into our work, and for me, it was a revelation.  All career assessment  advice that I knew up that point was about the content of a career.  Dr. Brousseau’s empirical research was about the “Shape of a Career”.  He concluded that people’s careers unfold into four basic shapes.  Two were very familiar to me and two not so much:

  • The Linear Career is the classic “climb the ladder” model that is indoctrinated as the only way to progress in many hierarchical organizations. Success is defined as reaching a level of power, influence, and/or compensation.

  • The Expert Career is the classic “ I want to be a fireman, doctor, et al when I grow up”. It represents the lifelong commitment to a profession. My father-in-law, Augie Bossu, a legendary football and baseball coach at Cleveland Benedictine High, was the epitome of this shape. In the Benedictine High community and beyond, you just say “Coach” and everyone knows who you are talking about.  Success is about being the best you can be in your field. Augie was one of the best. 

  • There is the Spiral Career, where one wants varied experiences, but spiraling around a core set of values and skills every 5-10 years.  My career fits this to a T, and yet for many years I felt like an outcast because I didn’t fit the dominant linear career culture. Success is about gaining a wider variety of experiences to expand one’s competencies.

  • Finally, there is the Transitory Career, my “black sheep bias”, where one embraces constant change and will often see work as a means to some other end: live in a certain area, or fund their avocation of being a rock star. While many never think of this as a career, including me at one time, I have come to realize that if one finds their sense of peace, purpose, or just plain happiness through this choice, who am I to judge?   

As I coach clients about careers, Dr Brousseau’s Career Model is etched into my brain. It keeps me open to different people with different motivations, some very different than my own. It has taught to respect the choices that I help people make about future careers. I’ve shared this model with people, many of whom are caught in a grind of a job that doesn’t quite fit or who keep missing the next promotion. On one occasion I explained the Transitory Career shape, and a person smiled and said, “Maybe those black sheep are the smart ones.”

William FanelliComment