Creating sustainable careers: By allowing space for the things you want to do in life.

The long and winding road

Imagine this: „As of a certain age it would be nice to grow smaller again from year to year and go backwards over the same steps that we once so proudly climbed. The ranks and honors of old age would still have to be the same as today; so that very small people, the size of six or eight-year-old boys, would be considered the wisest and most experienced. The oldest kings would be the shortest; there would only be very tiny popes; the bishops would look down on cardinals, the cardinals on the pope. No child could wish to become something great. “

When the writer Elias Canetti contemplated this fantasy about wisdom without power, importance without physical might, in his diary in the 1940s he certainly did not think of today’s all-important founders, CEOs and top managers. It was an era of dictators, strongmen and generals. Children wishing to become something great did not think about selling books and household appliances or office machines but about careers in politics, the military or the church, taking them as high and making them as powerful as possible.

But today Canetti might have applied the same thought just as well to the world of management and the holy order of men, climbing up the corporate ladder from one position to the next, higher level. Never look back, never give up on stature and power, as this certainly is perceived as a weakness in your next job interview, making you unfit to become a member of that coveted C-suite. Women are trying to catch up, but centuries of male bonding are effectively handicapping their competition.

The very notion of „career“, as legions of management books have taught us (and the etymology from the Middle French carriere implies, meaning racecourse) implies a more or less straight road: careful considerations not about the goals we wish to do reach for fulfilling work and lives, but the steps we need to take to „get ahead“, wherever that is. Purpose and meaning have to take a back seat to bigger and more powerful. And higher bonuses, of course.

But the nature of the game is that only very few will reach the highest level with its rich rewards. And the rest? Stuck in second tier management positions with fancy titles and stressful jobs, limited potential for fulfillment, and under constant threat of becoming redundant.

Now imagine this: A rethink of the meaning of career so that with each new job, each new challenge we will find our work more interesting, our experience ever broader, our accomplishments more meaningful to ourselves as well as for those customers we work for. Slowly this idea is catching up with some: Middle managers who say „no thank you“ to their next promotion or to the glorious job offer from Dubai and other far-fetched places to become shop owners, personal coaches, founders of social enterprises, teachers, NGO-managers. Of course there are managers who thrive in the game of selling even more of the stuff they are selling and being in command — for them a more meaningful career might mean they can take time out for their kids, or some other passion, and return to the game after a few years without funny looks from their colleagues who kept the tread mill going.

Companies, realizing that people are starting to look at their careers in a less linear, more winding fashion, are trying to catch up with these fancy new ideas of personal fulfillment and meaningful work. They offer „work-life-balance“ (often a front for free snacks and a gym in the basement to keep fit while working long hours), encouraging volunteering for meaningful projects within office hours (with all-in contracts) or sabbaticals to keep the talent that might otherwise be tempted to jump ship.

While these HR efforts will work for some people for some of the time, it sidesteps the central issue of meaningful work. What if the purpose of all this „balanced“ work life only advances the not so meaningful actions and products of the company itself? Defining a way to make Diesel (and other carbon-powered) SUVs still look good in the threatening face of climate change? Raising the market share of aluminum canned drinks, selling „dream cruises“ on huge ships that feed Overtourism, enhancing yet another digital platform that allows cyberbullying and drive a wedge in our societies?

That will be the catch for creating sustainable careers: They need all the efforts of HR departments to make life at the workplace more interesting, more fulfilling, more accommodating to personal needs. HR needs to deal with winding paths, be curious why some people may have stepped away from climbing the corporate ladder rather than holding it against them in a job interview. Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes — including the diversity of thoughts about the meaning of work and life.

And yet that will not be enough. Sustainable careers are only possible if the C-suite aims for a meaningful business that their staff from shop and service personal to engineers, marketeers and accountants can underwrite and tell their Fridays-for-future-children about. Examples are slowly showing on the horizon: Companies that voluntarily raise wages not just for those on the top but also at the bottom of the ladder. Corporations that declare ambitious timelines for decarbonization and stick to it. Prioritizing privacy over maximizing profits. The list goes on.

Imagine this.

Dieser Beitrag erschien im englischsprachigen Leadership Forum von Der Standard.

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