Ideas for Leaders #016

Flexible Career Paths in Organizations

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Key Concept

Over the years, career paths have changed from a steady ascent, to unique tracks adapted to each person. Whereas previously, the concept of career trajectory was upward progression on a preset track, today career paths are more flexible and adaptable to personal needs. Why is it important for leaders to understand this? Well, by doing so, they can drive personal and professional development in ways based on feasible flexibility, development-orientated relationships, visibility and transparency, and diversity management. 

Idea Summary

During the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the concept of careers was similar to a ‘race’, with each person in the race having the same time and energy to devote to reaching the same end goal. But now, careers cannot be conceived as a linear sprint, from crouching start to finishing line; instead of racing against others, it is more important to follow your own path and achieve the goals that you consider to be worthwhile depending on your particular circumstances.

The definition of career success has also changed. It is less dependent on earning the recognition of others, and more about setting individual goals with your own path to achieving those goals. The one-size-fits-all approach is no more relevant, and neither are immovable objectives. “The career track has had its day,” says Professor Mireia las Heras in this Idea, and recent economic and social changes have emphasized this point.

Referring to research at IESE into the development of career paths, Heras identifies two keys to employability:

  1. Professional challenges: these test our knowledge and skills, and force us to develop new capabilities.
  2. Personal support: this includes technical and emotional support, and is crucial for creating environments in which people face challenges.

Now, more than ever, companies must create environments that account for these two factors. Below are four ways in which they can do so.

Business Application

As developing a career path is heavily influence by an organization’s environment, the presence of the following four features can favour, and absence hinder, the development of professional paths. By adopting these features, companies can provide necessary challenges and support to employees:

  1. Feasible flexibility: family and financial commitments require employees to take on heavier workloads in return for promotions or higher pay. Feasible flexibility arrangements allow them to meet their personal or professional obligations, without having to sacrifice either sphere for the sake of the other. Examples include offering flexitime, compressed work weeks, telecommuting, etc.
  2. Development-orientated relationships: having a rich network of relationships enables us to tackle new challenges with confidence. Companies can foster such relationships by becoming actively involved in industry and professional associations, or by setting up common interest groups among employees.
  3. Visibility and transparency: in times of crisis, companies may go into lockdown mode, making it difficult for employees to find the challenging projects and/or support they need. However, there are things that even companies in crisis can do, such as reassigning tasks and projects among different members if a team, rotating employees among jobs, etc.
  4. Diversity management: unfortunately, for many companies, diversity can be suppressed. Diversity comprises more than gender, race, education or nationality, it encompasses the whole way that people process information, analyze problems, search for solutions and view the world. Companies should create diverse, mixed teams. Diversity policies with the clear strategic aim of enriching career paths are also beneficial.
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Idea conceived

  • 2011

Idea posted

  • January 2013

DOI number



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