Anyone who has read my book, Business Rules – a Cynic’s Guidebook to the Corporate Overlords, knows I am not a fan of the use of the word “career.” While it applies in some specialty fields, in others it is a self-perpetuating myth. People have jobs. They desperately try and string jobs together to tell a story, but often it is a hot mess more than something that is cohesive. Many people want careers, but in the real world, they have a job.
I have not mapped years to this because it varies for people. Some people might burn through all of the stages in a matter of five years – some twenty. Your results may vary.
So what are the stages of this mythical beast called a career? Here’s my summary, for your reading entertainment.
Idealistic Stage. You are young(er) with a twinkle in your eye and a bounce in your step. You believe that your long hours of hard work will be recognized and rewarded. You go above and beyond to kick ass and takes names later. Initially, it seems to work, encouraging more of this behavior. Your first promotion or two creates the illusion that you are doing the right things to get ahead. You confuse management with leadership at this stage. Hell, it doesn’t matter, you are just happy to do your job. There are a few older bitter employees, and you mock them openly because you see yourself smarter and more energetic than them. Your “career” is not just about the paycheck, it’s about the challenge and the thrill you get as your learn new things. The money is just as way for you to measure how well you are doing, like a ranking in a video game.
You find a specialty at work that intrigues you, and you become an expert in it. It excites you to become the master of something.
When you go on business travel, it’s a party paid for by the company. Your interests outside of work are limited because work seems awesome. In fact, the things that make you happy and the relationships that seem to matter are all tied to your job and you don’t care. You identify mentors who you respect and they give you useful advice. It is hard to imagine working anywhere else because the values of your organization seem to align with yours personally.
You are building your network in the organization…meaning you engage with many peers and form relationships that may help you in the future. It is easy to do since many of you are just starting out.
Life is good because you can manage it. Work and life get blurred, but that’s okay. You have a lifetime to sort that out.
Questioning State. As you move higher in the organization, you notice that the behaviors that got you rewarded are taken for granted. Upper management simply expects you to work long hours, they expect it from everyone. You notice that some people that are promoted don’t share your work ethics or values. Some advance because they are talented brown-nosers who kiss ass more than work. You see people who advance based on technical skill rather than leadership capabilities. Adding to this, the pace of promotions begins to slow down.
The company makes changes to your benefits and compensation and for the first time you question those changes. You notice that some people you respect either move on to other companies, or lose their jobs in one of the many reorganizations you start to experience/feel. You see entire teams gutted, seemingly for no reason. Still, you want to believe that the organization you work for cares about you – so you overlook most of these indiscretions, but a nagging voice in your head makes you wonder if you are a valuable member of a team, or merely a commodity. You begin to ponder what your value is from the company’s perspective.
That thing you became an expert in…you realize you need more. So you reinvent yourself, becoming an expert in another field. For a short time that fulfills your joy, but it seems to fade fairly quickly.
The corporate rules becomes blurry and confusing as to what is expected of you as ambiguity becomes a competency. You are confused by what you see, but cannot fully articulate what is happening. You begin to question how the organization is run and who is leading it.
Money means a lot more at this stage of your career because you are more settled, have more responsibilities, and want/need more stuff. You begin to notice that some people are treated better financially those others with bonuses and other incentives, and it bothers you because they are not distributed equitably. It was probably always this way, but now you start to notice it more and ask, “Why?” It’s not an overriding concern…yet.
You get to go to training, but much less often than earlier in your career. It’s not for lack of desire, but there are always budget and timing questions that seem to block you. You are hit with counters to your request like, “If you think you can afford to take three days to go to training in the middle of this critical stage of the project, go ahead.” You become the bad person for even suggesting to take time off.
You still are working just as hard as you did, cranking up the long hours, but you are beginning to question if it is worth it. Work-life balance starts to creep in as an issue. You still travel without questioning whether it is needed or not. You begin to question the bureaucracy and rules that you ignored earlier in your career. Your pool of friends at work is starting to drain and it is harder to bring new people into that dwindling circle.
Disillusionment Stage. You feel as if you are a marked man or woman. Your manager cannot tell you how to advance or grow in the organization because they are fighting to save their own phony-baloney jobs. You see long-time friends and colleagues lose their jobs to downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, etc. When the promotion list comes out, it is something that infuriates and frustrates you. “How could that imbecile get promoted and I can’t?” There doesn’t seem to be any rules to follow or path to walk that can get you promoted.
You want to change jobs but the tentacles of your life and organization hold you tightly. You have debt in life, you need to keep your medical plan, you don’t want to sacrifice your retirement plan by starting over at a new company, or you are so much older that other organizations won’t bother to interview you. (If anyone out there believes that age discrimination isn’t real, you’re a fool.) Where you used to be comfortable with work and life blending together, now you want them separated. You hate going on business trips at this stage of your corporate life because you have started to develop a life outside of work as a means of mental escape from the depressing grind that work has morphed into.
Training you want to take is expensive and the company refuses to send you…after all, why train someone who may only use those skills for the few years remaining in your careers? At the same time, they ding you for not having the right skills.
The publication of the annual promotions list is a source of frustration and anger. “How could they promote her? He couldn’t find his ass with a flashlight and both hands!” are typical comments. You are no longer sure what to do to progress or grow in your role because the rules are constantly in flux. Despite this, people come to you to ask career advice and you do your best to help them.
Money plays a role here at this stage too. You begin to compare notes with others and can see how you are not earning what you feel you deserve. It makes you angry, but leadership brushes it off when you raise it with them. “I can’t talk to you about what another person is making.” At this stage, money has become less of a necessity (you make enough) but more of a way to gauge yourself against others.
That network you built back when you were idealistic…it is dwindling. RIF’s, layoffs, and outsourcing have cost some of your work-friends their jobs. Some make sense, others seem random, almost arbitrary. This has you wondering what leadership in your organization is thinking, if anything.
Your days are filled with PowerPoint slide decks and meetings to plan other meetings. You think and speak in bullet points, even at home. Vacation and holidays are often rushed, squeezed in between work deliverables, but deeply cherished. You still check email while off, doing it in secret from your significant other.
In this stage you start to question business travel. “Do I really have to be there live for two hours of meetings?” You have a ton of points for hotels and airlines, but don’t seem to have the time to use them. Your personal life seems suddenly to be more important than, “working for the man.” The things that make you happy are outside the office.
You are in an emotional prison, unable to move up in the organization, living in fear of layoffs, watching incompetent and unskilled people pass you by. Your last mentor is contemplating suicide and blaming the company in the farewell note. As your company plays with your benefits, you feel powerless and impotent. You won’t work an hour of overtime at this point; why bother? Distrust in the organization is your default setting, and with good reason.
Your use of Linkedin supersedes your use of other social media.
Survival Mode or “Shawshank Redemption” Stage. Less-than-subtle comments to you like: “We could hire three kids of out college for what we pay you,” or “I can move your job to India for a quarter of the cost,” are your “inspiration” at this stage. You feel as if you have given the organization so much that you merely want to see this ride through to the bitter end. That and you still cling to some of the values you had when you first started there. You want to be back at the early stages of your career when you understood the rules of the game and it was fun to play. You keep hoping that the leaders will go back to those ideals you cling to.
It helps to know where the skeletons are buried, mostly because you dug a lot of the holes over the years.
Your decisions are always weighed against, “Can they use this as an excuse to let me go?” You have become that older prick you used to joke about in the organization. Everything becomes clinging to the thing you have grown to hate, simply because it is a paycheck. Your moments of inspiration and glimmers of hope are quickly squashed by others in leadership.
Vacations and holidays are seen as sacred time where you completely disconnect from work. Money means less at this stage of your “career.” This is more about survival. You have been complaining of your pay for so long your expectations are appropriately low.
The publication of the promotions list has you seeing people there that you have never heard of. Your personal network can be counted on one hand. Many show signs of PTSD, having barely survived countless layoffs and reorganizations. They are, for the most part, institutionalized – apparently trapped in their roles.
Your mentors have been all laid off, fired, or escaped. Your circle of friends at work has shriveled to a handful. You actively work to avoid business travel because you have come to hate airports, hotels and people. Work is a prison where parole consists of reductions in force. Each time the axe is swung you secretly hope you are on the list. You know the layoff packages in your organization as well as your pension plan.
When there’s a workplace shooting on TV and people say, “I don’t know how that could happen,” you find you possess the answers.
If you look at the chart above, mapping your disengagement increase, your engagement at work decrease, and your salary, you can see that the optimum period comes during the disillusionment period in the small triangle you see on the chart. I name this little spot the Triangle of Apathy…where you still care about work, but realize the futility of that caring.