The Benefits of Non-Sequential Careers

  • Dan White
  • June 24th, 2021

Traditional careers have been sequential, one job following another, but in the 2020s it is increasingly common for talent to operate a "multi-strand" approach whether through a multidisciplinary role at their FTE or a variety of "side gig" enterprises, even if there is no intent to go full time freelance or self-employed. What are the pros and cons of this rising trend for organizations, and how can businesses adapt the support they provide to retain and grow key talent without giving the feeling of being "boxed in" at work?

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I haven’t worked five days a week full-time for one company for over a decade now. It’s been so long that the idea seems faintly quaint, even attractively simple. Instead, I have opted to juggle a number of roles, paid and voluntary, alongside parenting to create a somewhat scattergun but deeply fulfilling period of my life, which I suspect would make going back to a full-time, five-days-a-week gig unlikely.

It’s not that I have lacked commitment to any of the roles I have undertaken. I started off setting up my own business as a ‘gun-for-hire’ facilitator and leadership consultant, running that two days a week while working three days at a large pharmaceutical company. When my children arrived, I dipped out of the pharma company, increased my focus on my own business to three days a week, and spent the other two days changing nappies and pureeing pears. As the kids grew, I took on a couple of voluntary part-time roles to fill the time while they were at school. Today, I work four days a week at Ezra, spending the other day split between childcare and, at least while the schools are open, running marathons (probably a mid-life crisis thing).

I love all the things I do and have done, and I believe they have all contributed to each other. My running gives me the mental health balance that supports everything else I do. Parenting keeps everything in perspective; it reminds me of what’s really important, and I think makes me a more focused employee. My work feeds a curiosity and enthusiasm that I like my children to see, the infectiousness of being consumed by a job that interests you.

It’s addictive. The more the merrier.

It should come as no surprise then that in my teams I have always encouraged people to explore serious exploits outside of their employment, whether that’s studying, writing, sport, or setting up their own business. I believe that we get the best from people when they are fulfilled, and I believe that for some, if not all, people this is more likely to be when their lives are filled with multiple things – it’s unlikely to be from just one role in one company.

This can be a challenge for leaders and organizations. We want to believe that we have created environments so rich in meaning and purpose, and with such a positive culture that they should supply our people with everything they could possibly need. If they choose to spend significant time outside our organization, it can be hard not to see that in terms of rejection, or as though we have got something wrong.

However, we operate on some serious double standards here. As people reach the top of large corporate life, it becomes accepted that they will sit on various boards, bodies, non-exec committees, government sub-committees etc. A CEO of a FTSE 100 or a Fortune 500 company that focused five days a week on just one corporate entity would be a very rare beast indeed.

Indeed, this sort of diffused focus is something of a badge of honor for the busy senior executive. How different it is seen lower down the corporate food chain!

I am heartened to see that new generations entering the workforce are increasingly likely to push for a normalization of this more ‘patchwork’ approach to careers and lives. They may have to push us Gen X-ers and the few remaining Boomers pretty hard, but in doing so I believe they will unleash new levels of productivity, innovation and fulfilment.

Productivity – because we all know that if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person. Or a working parent. Or a woman. Those three are often the same person. I say that somewhat tongue in cheek, but there is some truth in this – when people are making careful decisions about how to maximize their productivity because their lives are very full, they will be optimally productive.  When people have the luxury of time, they won’t be.

Innovation – because innovative thinking is most often ideas rubbing up alongside each other. Previously unconnected things coming together and shining a light on something novel. Those novel insights are far more likely to get the opportunity to breed innovations if the person is inhabiting diverse environments, seeing different things, approaching different problems.

Fulfilment – because most of us are not content doing just one thing. We are complex, multifaceted creatures that seek multiple outlets for our creativity, our needs, our interests.

So – there are a slew of upsides to encouraging a less rigid employment structure, but surely there are downsides too? Well, yes.

It can make the parking schedule tricky to organize…

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