Are You “Really” Planning Your Career? : Feature Article; V2 Issue1

By Vasanthi Srinivasan

Professor Vasanthi Srinivasan is an Associate Professor in the area of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources Management at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. She is an Executive Committee Member of the International Society of Business, Economics and Ethics (ISBEE) and is on the Board of Directors of a few international not-for profit social and non-governmental organizations. Her areas of interest are Career Management, leadership development and HR Management in the International Context. Her consulting work has been in the areas of building capability of HR professionals, performance management and leadership development.She holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Personnel Management and Industrial Relations from XLRI Jamshedpur, and a Fellow in Management from IIM Bangalore.

Many young people acquire degrees because they are expected to. However, very few are clear as to how those degrees tie in to their careers and how their careers enmesh with their lives. This is an insight I gained in the last academic year, while teaching the course titled “Managing your careers and growth” for the MBA students at IIM Bangalore. It was further substantiated by my interactions with participants of Leadership Development Programs for organizations. During the coaching discussions centered on their Individual Development Plans (IDP), participants reflect on their life and career journey, their dreams, aspirations, capabilities, expectations and definitions of success.  I find that many of the young high potential managers have strong achievement motivation ensuring their success in whatever they do. Most of the time, their roles in organizations are determined only by organizational needs and their high achievement orientation ensures they achieve success in their assigned roles. It is only when they have spent about 18 years at work do they ask “Is this what I want to do?” By then, given their life stage, with EMI payments on homes, children going to expensive schools and a certain life style, it becomes difficult to make significant career decisions. Many find it difficult to visualize their career growth beyond wanting to become a CEO before they turn 40. When I ask them “After that what?” most of them flounder. It suddenly hits them that they have another 25 years of healthy working life ahead of them.


What does career management mean for individuals today?
Over the last few years, I have been studying career transitions – of my students, of women IT professionals and technology professionals.  Based on my understanding of what is emerging, I’ll attempt to explore the changing definitions of career through four real life stories of individuals that are representative of a large number of individuals that we would have met in our lives. But they are special to me because I have known each one of them for at least a decade.

Story 1: Aakash passed out of a premier management institute in India in 1986 with specialization in HR and Systems. Prior to joining MBA, he did his bachelors degree in philosophy and music. Having had an offer from a blue chip company in the IT sector, he joined them in the systems function and spent the next 19 years in the same company. In 2005, he was promoted as the Head of a business. In 2006, he went part time for a year to give attention to his son who was finishing his school. His wife was a media professional. During this period, he enrolled in an interior decoration course and began to pursue music in earnest. Since 2007, he has quit work and continues to devote full time to music. He often wonders why he took so long to make this decision. 

Story 2: Kalyan, an engineering graduate from a premier institute decided to join the precision engineering industry in 1982. In his career spanning 26 years, he has moved three organizations, each of them with increased responsibility and commensurate compensation. He is highly respected in the organization. But he now feels that after a 25 year career, he would like to give back to society. With both his children well settled, he is exploring the idea of a career in a ‘Not for profit’ organization or in academics. His questions today are: How does one become aware of these opportunities? What is the bridge available for those who want to make significant career transitions?

Story 3: Meghnath, passed out with a Bachelor’s degree in commerce in 2000. He joined a large multinational. In his first year, he was awarded the best performer. In 2002, another MNC starting operations in India offered him an 80% salary increase. He joined them. After spending 18 months with them, he realized that his former employer was a more progressive and a highly empowering company. Wanting to work in a company like that he joined a large Indian company with a formidable reputation.  With an excellent performance track record, he was promoted twice in 20 months. In 2007, another large MNC offered him the role of a Manager with significantly higher responsibility and salary. Though he chose to move to this new organization he is now is unclear as to where he is headed. His family would like him to settle down, but he believes that since he has changed his job recently, he cannot afford the “distraction”. One of his goals is to be the CEO of a company by the time he turns 35.

Story 4: Anita is a project manager in a large IT firm. She has been with the organization for years. She has been assigned good projects, has done two stints overseas, and is growing within the organization. She has bought a flat in Hyderabad. Overall she is happy with her job and the organization. However, her friends tell her that spending 8 years in one organization is not positive for her career. It signifies a lack of initiative and achievement. Having sent out her resume to some recruiters, she has been getting some calls. She is now confused.

With the four stories, above as the context I would like to introduce three interesting streams of thought.

1. What is a career?
Till a decade ago in India, the definition of career was a series of upward moves, with steadily increasing, income, status and power. Individuals also believed that there was only one occupation for which they were best suited. They made career choices when they were young, mostly irreversible.  Increasingly, these assumptions are being challenged.

D T Hall, a career expert, provides a more contemporary definition of career. “The sequence of a person’s work related activities and behaviours and associated attitudes, values and aspirations over the span of one’s life”. This definition is highly individual centered, considers work and non work as critical realms of life, does not imply success or failure and does not have organization as its focus. All the four stories narrated above fit into this definition.

2. What constitutes success or failure in a career?
Career theories define careers from two perspectives:-

  • External or objective: This examines and interprets the same career situation from the institutional or organisational point of view. The objective career is described in terms of designation, position, status, promotion, salary and perquisites.

  • Internal or subjective: This refers to the individual's own interpretation of his or her career situation. The subjective career is linked to internal matters, such as personal meanings and identity. Often people use adjectives such as satisfaction, accomplishment, contribution, achievement and growth to describe subjective careers.

Thus objective careers are tangible, visible to others and comparable. In contrast, subjective career success is in the eye of the beholder; it creates value to self and the individual and is highly perceptual. Therefore, comparability is almost impossible. The critical question each one of us has to ask is “What would career success look like to me?”

3. How do individuals identify their careers?
Career choices are a function of individual interests, capabilities, aptitudes, skills and values. Unless individuals explore these personality elements it is unlikely that they would be able to work towards their potential. It is possible to identify the career/s best suited for oneself through deep career exploration. The definition of subjective career success is one element of career exploration. However, the definition of subjective career success would occur for individuals at different stages in their life. For some it could come as early as the first job. For others, it would evolve over time as they explore multiple careers and know what they don’t want. Interestingly while a large number of people maybe at an identical stage on objective career success; it is the subjective career success which is the differentiator.

With this understanding if we now examine the four stories, we can clearly see that all the individuals were highly successful from an objective career perspective. But it was the subjective career success that Aakash found, Kalyan is in the process of finding and both Meghnath and Anita are searching for.  Is subjective career success a function of life stage? Did Aakash and Kalyan find it because they were chronologically older? Not really. There are a lot of older people in the workforce who may not have sought subjective career success, because it is impossible for them to think of doing so. Similarly, there are a lot of younger individuals who have found subjective career success, even though they may not have attained objective career success. A number of young start up entrepreneurs fall in this category.  


Managing subjective career success
India has witnessed an economic boom in the last two decades. This has meant that some sections of the society, especially people like you and me are in an era of abundance. There are plenty of jobs if you are competent. Therefore, many of us can exercise choices. Similarly, with loans becoming affordable, most of us are likely to own properties at a much earlier age compared to our parents. With fairly high salaries, our financial planning is quite robust. In such a context, more professionals are likely to and can financially afford to seek subjective career success. The subjective career success could emerge from any sphere – creating something new, making music, teaching at a primary school, volunteering at an NGO, building a new marketing program or selling a new design. Are we looking for meaning? Many people talk about their “calling” often referring to fundamental, profound, radical or transformational career changes that they have made. They are referring to the subjective career success which gives them meaning.

As a starting point to managing a career you can explore and examine five points:-

  • Are you happy and excited about what you do at work at least 300 days a year?
  • Does an inner voice keep telling you that may be you could do better at work/career?
  • If you were not doing your current job, what would you be doing?
  • Do the power, position, status and salary that you currently earn reflect who and what you are?
  • What is it that you will do when you are fifty or sixty years old that you are not doing today?

The above questions force us to reflect. Reflection is the starting point in the career journey. Reflection often results in insights. Deep insights lead to career exploration which in turn leads to subjective career success. I am not for a moment suggesting that you look at subjective career immediately. But do start exploring. And when you begin to think on these lines, there is increased scope to engage with your potential. After all, isn’t exploring the human potential the purpose of a human life!!!