I know a woman who has a PhD in biology, but now makes a living as R&D manager in a small electronics firm. And doing a great job, evidently.
That’s flexibility for you. Used to be, if you studied biology, you’d be a biologist, and that was that. For most people, that’s the way it still works; but if you look around you’ll see a sizable minority of people who simply don’t care – they do a great job at whatever they feel competent to do. Me too, I suppose – I studied applied physics, went into forensic science and VLSI engineering, but ultimately left all of these behind – and these days I lecture and consult about knowledge worker effectiveness. Similarly, I have friends who switched from management to academia, from teaching to management, from engineering to biological research, from hi-tech to chocolate making… and many more.
So what’s the idea? Is this moving between tracks a good thing?
Flexible careers: the pros and the cons
Actually, there are two sides to this question. If you can switch tracks without losing your stride, you gain many advantages:
- You increase your employment security, such as it is these days – if you lose your job (or decide to quit it) there are more avenues open to you.
- Even within one company, you can take advantage of more diverse career opportunities.
- You gain a much wider scope of knowledge and experience, which can come in handy in unexpected and wonderful ways.
- You can have a much more interesting and fulfilling professional life!
On the other hand, there are risks:
- You may make a switch and discover the new discipline is too hard for you to master.
- You may lack knowledge that only a formal education in the field can provide.
- The lack of formal education may be held against you in future job hunting.
- If you jump too often, you may end up a Jack of all trades and Master of none.
So is the balance good or bad? It depends!
Critical success factors for implementing flexible careers
When I think about it, I realize that there’s no universal answer, but there are two factors at play.
One factor is the character and ability of the individual involved. I’ve seen many competent employees that would view a radical career move as a nightmare; it just doesn’t sit well with their world view, self image, and inherent tendency. Then I know many people who thrive on change like this, and fall on their feet in almost any job.
The second factor is the culture of the organization in which they have to work (of course, if you’re happy to work for yourself that is not an issue!). It takes a special company culture to permit people to take on jobs they weren’t educated for (naturally, after careful scrutiny by their managers!)
At Intel Israel we took a positive view of people making dramatic moves, at all levels. So when the plant’s nurse decided to move into manufacturing as a supervisor, she was allowed to so; and when our electronic testing manager wanted to become a chip designer, management made it so. Most of this kind of moves ended up as success stories – but a few failed; the informed risk was accepted. We were also willing to take such bets when hiring – a good person that impressed the interviewing managers as smart, competent and motivated would be hired even if they lacked formal training. Dov Frohman, the founder of Intel in Israel, famously said he may well prefer to hire a well rounded philosophy graduate rather than an inexperienced computing guy.
Of course, that isn’t all there is to it. Once you have the right kind of person and the right kind of company, it still takes hard work on both sides to get the employee to acquire the needed skills and complete any missing studies, whether on the job, through internal training programs, or in external institutions. In fact, it is only when the two factors I mentioned – the employee and the organization – work hand in hand, that you can make these interesting career moves succeed.
And once they do succeed, everyone gains. The employees have an interesting career and feel empowered to follow their heart. The company has smarter employees, higher employee satisfaction and retention, and an atmosphere of empowerment that makes it a better workplace for the entire workforce. Been there; believe me, it made me proud to know my company allows me, as a manager, to provide such opportunities, and to empower such daring, among my subordinates – and that I can take advantage of these opportunities myself, should I want to. Which I did…
Image courtesy Centpacrr, shared on Wikipedia under CC license.