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When told that the ‘shortest distance between two points is a straight line’, this familiar maxim has an, inherent, link to the topic of avoidance. A straight line helps us to avoid wasting time, digressive conversations, subtle references to a certain attraction and political malfeasance. The straight-line reference is a way of avoiding behavioral meandering so as to stay focused on what’s in front of you. In the business sector, the phrase ‘cradle to grave’ contract was used to describe the linear progression of a career path. Career advancement reflected a climb up a ladder of a silo in which professional perspectives were shaped by the boundaries of that narrow focus. All things linear were viewed as the appropriate, lock-step method for achieving career success. While there were those individuals for whom broader experiences were essential to their growth, they tended to be the exception to a hard and fast linear form of organizational reinforcement. The ‘cradle to grave distance between two points’ appeased and supported thousands of employees in their long-term commitment to remain with a certain employer and sustain their long-term survival. Of course, those were different times and the linear way of managing organizations and careers took a drastic Y2K turn of the century.

There is a growing trend among 21
st century employees that suggests a non-linear, broad-base, cross-industry approach to career management. The quickest route to the top does not lie on a ladder, but within a portfolio that is linked to a network. While this may blur the lines of what is or is not functional experience, it certainly paves the way for increasing one’s skill base by delving into areas outside of one’s formal training. If the truth be told, it is not unusual to learn that the area in which one is working is not the major that was chosen. The need for a job always trumps career interest. The silo days of market dominance and middle management muddling has given way to a generation of employees who, as children, watched their parents endure the first brunt of downsizing and who now, as adults, have experienced the pain of being in an employment world that has turned on its axis. It is not enough to be masterfully functional, and capable of, only, analyzing and solving organizational problems from that narrow perspective. Whether out of intuition, fear, survival or self-determination, the 21st
century employee lacks the luxury and security of a market dominant employer. So, to offset the dependent career relationship, employees are willing to move to different organizations within industries, different organizations across industries, from public to private, profit to non-profit and everything in between. It is an interesting pattern given the current economic climate. While there is a hunkering down and holding on until things get better, the ostrich will still raise its head to see what is going on and if there is an opportunity to move on.

It is important for employment managers to consider the ‘new rules’ that operate in the career development arena. These are rules that emerged from the Merger & Acquisition, and global expansion Wild West show of the 1980’s. Career minded individuals recognized that the forks in the road less traveled offered broader opportunities and would require a mind shift from the tried and true. The shortest distance between career points is not a straight line. Career advancement is not the clear shot through the barrel of the organization, but is dependent upon the ability to manage a series of experiences both within and outside of the organization.

© 2013 Lee E. Meadows
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