Navigating the New Economy: Will the Generalists Emerge as Career Winners?Published: May 12, 2010 in Knowledge@Emory
Generational differences, a troubled economy and continuing uncertainty in financial markets have helped to reshape the ways companies operate and, by extension, employees’ career paths. The days when a college degree guaranteed a high-paying job have largely disappeared, and even people who are in a good job now can’t assume they’re safe.
But some fundamental strategies with a contemporary twist may help job seekers achieve their objectives, say professionals from Emory University and elsewhere.
“We’ve seen many changes during the past few years,” notes Jennifer Howard, executive coach for Executive MBA students at Emory’s Goizueta Business School. A leadership coach and career counselor, Howard says her work at Goizueta largely involves executives in their mid-thirties to early forties.
“There’s a lot more competition, and the career track isn’t always as well defined as it once was,” she says.
Some of the changes—like the move away from an expectation of lifetime employment with a single company—have been in the works for decades, Howard points out.
“The generation that matured in the 1950s was probably the last to plan on staying with one employer for life,” she explains. “The concept began to fray with the baby-boomers, who came of age during the tech boom, and by the time Generation X and Generation Y entered the workforce, the combination of the economy and lifestyle changes had pretty well put the sole-employer outlook to rest.”
In fact, she added, while baby boomers were the first generation to embrace job-hopping, their Gen X and Gen Y successors have expanded the concept to include multiple career shifts.
That kind of shift is evident among applicants to the Goizueta’s EMBA program, says Joan Coonrod, assistant dean of EMBA admissions.
“The average EMBA student has 15 years or more of business experience,” she notes. “Many of the younger ones—those with less than 10 years’ experience—have already been with two or three companies. The individuals with 20-years-plus of experience may have started at one company and planned to stay there for life, but have often been forced out due to the economy. Ten years ago it was the tech bust. In this recession, top jobs in real estate, retail, and financial services have evaporated.”
So even people who are “well nested” in a company need to approach their career development with a proactive plan, Coonrod says.
“If you’re in a senior management position and hope to move up, doing a great job is no longer enough,” she cautions. “You can’t sit back and wait to be recognized, because your competitors are taking active steps. Instead, you have to identify the skill sets you’ll need to advance your career and take steps to acquire those skills.”
In today’s competitive environment, people need to fill in any gaps in their education and their experience, Coonrod adds. “Advanced education can make a big difference.”
That realization may be one of the factors driving an increase in graduate school applications, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, a Washington, D.C.–based research organization.
U.S. graduate student enrollment grew 6 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to findings from the 2009 CGS International Graduate Admissions Survey, published in late 2009. The Executive MBA Council reports that the number of applicants to Executive MBA programs rose 9.6 percent in the same period, while a steady acceptance rate—63 percent—meant EMBA enrollment rose 4.3 percent from 2008–2009.
“For domestic students, the national economy and weak job market are likely partially responsible for the increase in first-time graduate enrollment,” noted CGS when it announced the results. The increased enrollment was also spurred by “increased recognition by students of the value of a graduate degree in today’s competitive world.”
Many individuals are electing to earn an MBA while they continue to advance their careers, Coonrod says.
“There’s an increasing need to acquire multidimensional skills,” Coonrod says. “Employees who have demonstrated their willingness to stretch by taking on responsibilities outside of their core expertise strengthen their ability to successfully manage their careers.”
So the road to the top is no longer necessarily a straight path, but may instead zigzag as go-getters take lateral moves to acquire additional skills to prepare for higher level roles. “EMBA programs can accelerate that process,” Coonrod notes.
Consulting and executive staffing professionals agree that the career advancement model has changed significantly in just the past few years.
“Advanced education and experience are both still important in today’s market, but companies now also want people who can help a company grow quickly when the economy turns around,” says Joel Koblentz, senior partner of The Koblentz Group, an Atlanta, GA–based executive search and consulting firm that works with publicly traded companies and private equity concerns.
“Companies have reduced their overhead in response to the recession, but now, with the bottom either near or here already, they’re looking for people who have a thorough understanding of business development,” he adds. “Executive MBAs and similar programs remain important, since companies want people with financial and analytical skills, but they also want executives with an extraordinarily high level of emotional intelligence—the ability to identify, assess, and manage their own emotions and those of a group—as well as the ability to apply their analytical judgment. And at this level, they want someone who can do all that right off the bat, without a formal training or mentoring program.”
People who meet that need usually have diverse backgrounds, Koblentz says.
“If it’s someone from a financial background, he or she likely has already supplemented it with operational experience,” he explains. “You also want someone who’s well grounded in principles that carry over across industries. The people who have a wide range of experience and education across platforms, have a spectrum of insight, and are not afraid of engaging with a diverse set of views are the ones who are likely to advance in this environment.”
“Right now we’re in a unique time,” says Koleen Singerline, senior vice president of Snelling Staffing Services, a New Jersey–based firm with offices in multiple states. “Last year was so bad that fewer people tried to make a move. They instead focused on keeping their jobs and avoiding a layoff.”
Now, says Singerline, an early stage recovery appears to be taking hold, but it’s different from previous recoveries.
“I think the ‘new normal’ is that companies want a broader range of skills,” she advises. “Employees need to ask themselves what will make them more valuable to an employer.”
Cross-training, beefed-up internet and social networking skills, and in-depth knowledge of finance and other areas all help, she adds.
“This recession caught many companies by surprise,” Singerline says. “In response, they’re trying to be more flexible going forward, hiring more contract and temporary workers around a core full-time staff, which will let firms respond more quickly to changes in the economy. People who have built a good brand around themselves and have advertised it through social networking and other initiatives will be in a good position to deal with the changes.”
Individuals who prepare for “the new normal” by expanding their classroom-based and workplace-based knowledge also stand a better chance of achieving work-life balance, according to EMBA’s Howard.
“People who don’t feel satisfied in their careers—but who have a wide knowledge base—may be better able to move into different industries that might be more emotionally rewarding,” she says, noting that the dive in the roller-coaster economy appears to have had mixed effects on career-switchers.
“On the one hand, some people who have a job are hesitant to switch to a different company, let alone a new career, in this economy,” Howard reports. “But for some people, losing a job forces them to rethink their career path and explore other options. When we counsel EMBA students, we suggest they reflect on their career and consider a track that aligns with interests they’re passionate about.”
The process goes beyond simply asking what they like or dislike about their current job, and the discussion instead focuses on clarifying their values and how best to meet them.
In some cases, a formal self-assessment and personality profile test may be appropriate, utilizing tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Birkman Method personality test, Howard says.
But she’s quick to add that career path development cannot be pursued in a passive manner.
“Individuals have to do their homework,” she cautions. “Before they begin a serious search, they need to scout out the industries they’re interested in and see whether advancement opportunities are growing or shrinking.”
The health care industry, for example, is growing as older Americans make up an increasing proportion of the population, while technology-related jobs are holding their own, Howard says. In contrast, the finance and manufacturing segments remain “tricky,” she adds.
All of this means individuals have to do a lot to prepare for the new business environment.
“Even when the economy recovers, companies are likely to continue trimming their operations as a way to cut costs and stay competitive,” Howard says. “Leaner operations mean the table of organization will continue to stay thin, limiting advancement opportunities. People who are best prepared in terms of knowledge, ability, experience, and ability to network are the ones most likely to be able to move ahead.”
Goizueta’s EMBA application numbers were steady despite a drop in corporate sponsorship, notes Howard.
“We’re seeing more EMBA students paying their own way,” she said, noting that many cost-conscious companies have reduced or eliminated their educational reimbursement budgets.
“But the cutbacks haven’t discouraged students from pursuing advanced studies,” she adds. “They realize that increasing their knowledge base is one way of setting themselves apart from competitors.”
While education and a willingness to work hard are key ingredients to getting ahead, companies are also looking for fast-trackers to be able to motivate the people who report to them.
“There’s a recognition that being a financial or other whiz isn’t enough today,” Howard notes. “Being able to guide and to motivate a team is also vital.”
Along with that, companies want leaders to work smoothly with other experts.
“Today’s business projects are growing more complex and often require input from a variety of departments and specialists,” she explains. “Firms today don’t want a leader to try to run the whole show him- or herself. Instead, they’re increasingly looking for group efforts across teams and across different parts of the organization. That means a leader has to be able to organize, motivate, and coordinate with a variety of people.”
Howard says that given the changes we’re seeing, “it’s more important than ever for people who want to get ahead to engage in a thorough, complete review of their knowledge and skills inventory, to identify areas that need to be strengthened, and to take steps to address those needs.”