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The Future of Career Management - Part 1

Two of the smartest people that I know are Maryanne Peabody and Larry Stybel. We are all strategic partners in a collaborative alliance named Lincolnshire/Arbora.

One of the benefits of this alliance is that I am able to share some truly great content that they have developed with the readership of our blog.

This blog is part 1 of a 3 part series on the future of careers. The thorough review that Maryanne and Larry provide will be of interest to everyone from early career to senior professional. Their insights perfectly capture all of the fast moving currents taking place in career management today.

We are job search campaign managers. 

Our professional work frequently allows us to work with senior leaders who know how to wear public masks of confidence. 

Beneath that veneer is a profound despair.   

There are two variations of this despair:

“My college roommate was able to retire at 58. I can’t afford to retire.  I feel like such a failure. What did I do wrong?”


“I am looking for employment but can't find full-time work.  My neighbor flits from full time job to full time job.  The recruiters are always calling this neighbor.  But the recruiters do not return my calls.  When I was young, they pursued me.  The only opportunities I get are for interim assignments.  I must be a failure.  What did I do wrong?”

This article is based on interviews with fifty senior executives who have been successful in managing their careers during difficult economic times.  Our corporate leaders learned the difficult lesson that success often involves the painful process of unlearning old frames of reference that once worked.  Unlearning old ideas that have been successful in the past is far more difficult than learning new ideas.

What are some of the lessons our leaders had to unlearn on their road to eventual success?

Short Job Tenure and Long Middle Age

The individual complaints with which we began this piece are but symptoms of two larger, well-known, health and economic trends impacting all who work in developed countries. 

The first trend is a shortening of traditional job tenure in line with the collapsing time frame for product life cycles, and corporate life cycles. 

Technology has been a driver behind the "speeding up" of business cycles. What economists call “creative destruction” is taking place at a faster pace and conscientious, qualified employees are often its victims.  In other words, job tenure within jobs and tenure within companies is decreasing. 

Short job tenure plays havoc on retirement savings.  The foundation of retirement savings is based on slow and consistent contribution.

Short job tenure explodes that assumption.

At the same time lifespan is increasing. You can thank the same technological factors that contribute to lowering job tenure. The average life span within industrial societies has increased 12 years since social security was adopted.

It is important, however, to remember that this additional 12 years is not an additional 12 years of old age. It is an elongation of middle age.  The old career model was based on long job tenure and death within 10-15 years of retirement.  The new career model is based on short job tenure and death within 25 years of retirement.

Implication: do not be critical of yourself if you do not have enough saved for a retirement that will support you for 25 years.  It is not your fault.  Unlearn your framework for retirement. 

The Free Agent Model: Never Valid For All

In the last ten years of the 20th century, economists like Robert Reich and popular business magazines like BUSINESS 2.0 began to write about “Free Agent Nation.”

Under the free agent framework, executives have careers that resemble professional sports stars. Free Agents smoothly shift from one major league team to another major league team through the work of third parties called “Agents.” 

In the world of business, agents are often called retained search executives. “Once it becomes known that I am on the market, an executive recruiter will call me.” 

Professional sports players represent an elite segment of the general population. Within this elite group, only the top 10-15% can count on the Free Agent model to work for them. 

What happens to the other 85 percent? When their contracts with a major league team are not renewed, it is the beginning of the end of their professional sports careers. 

Even for this elite 10-15%, Free Agency will cease to be valid as they age or become injured.

In other words, Free Agency as is valid for a few athletes some of the time and for no athlete all of the time.

Free Agency as a Career Model in Business

Free Agency says that winners smoothly move from full time job to full time job with the help of recruiters. Like professional sports, Free Agency works for a small group of leaders some of the time.  And it works for all leaders none of them time.  

Unless you unlearn Free Agency, you doom yourself to individual feelings of failure.  Moving from a “good” corporate job that you were placed in by a recruiter to “Temporary Help” as a consultant or an interim executive can make you feel humiliated.

The Case of Jack:

The new model to replace Free Agency is traversing from full-time assignments or W-2 relationships to project assignments or 1099 relationships. And then back again.  Failure to grasp the realities of the traversing can make a complex professional life even more painful.

Consider the case of Jack:

Jack was CFO of a company in a declining industry. A larger player acquired Jack’s company and he received a one-year severance agreement as part of his exit package. Jack spent the first nine months aggressively networking for a full-time CFO job in his geographic area, while making it clear that an interim or project oriented role was beneath him.  By month ten, Jack became concerned about his family cash flow situation.  He began looking for interim assignments. Jack found his network unresponsive and the reason was obvious: he had clearly signaled early in his job search that interim assignments were second choice. Jack is now approaching month 24 without either employment assignments or project assignments.

Jack’s story is both unhappy and common. It need not have ended this way.

Jack needed to understand and accept that his career may have begun as an employee but it would most certainly end as a consultant.  And he is going to have to support himself on consulting earnings once his full time W-2 period is over.

Should I Go Into Freelance Work?

We tell our clients the question should not be “should I go into consulting?” The question should be “When I go into consulting, will I make enough money?”

Think of today’s leaders as managing two distinct professional lives.  One life focuses on full-time employment and the other life focuses on project assignments, also known as interim free-lance, or consulting assignments.

In a world of short job tenure, even full time jobs need to be thought of as “assignments” rather than long term career slots you will occupy. 

Your mission in managing your career is to manage these two professional lives so that you will be successful in both since you will be careening from one to the other over a period of years.

In the next section of this article, we will address why you need to unlearn the notion about “climbing the ladder” of success.

About the Authors:

Stybel_Peabody.jpgLarry Stybel and Maryanne Peabody are the principals for Stybel Peabody, a human capital management consulting firm based out of Boston. Their core services include retained search+, high potential leadership development, and executive outplacement.

Stybel Peabody clients include 21% of the one hundred companies named by Fortune Magazine as “Best Employers in the United States,” two of the Big Four CPA firms, 60% of Boston’s largest twenty law firms, 70% of Massachusetts’ largest twenty health care delivery systems, five of Massachusetts’ largest seven institutions of higher education, and a number of family businesses.

Larry and his partner Maryanne Peabody also write a monthly column in Psychology Today called “Platform for Success: the making of great leaders.” In the past 12 months there have been 220,000 downloads. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/platform-success