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There’s never been a better time to build a “protean career”

Reuters, via the National Human Genome Research Institute
Be ready for twists and turns.
  • Tomoko Yokoi
By Tomoko Yokoi

Researcher, Global Center for Digital Business Transformation, International Institute for Management Development (IMD)

Even before the coronavirus crisis, there were clear signs of workers around the world feeling anxious about navigating the future of work and staying relevant in a changing economy. A global poll conducted in 2019 revealed that 61% of respondents believed their current jobs would be impacted by technological changes and globalization.

Many organizations are looking to understand what emerging job opportunities look like. A recent World Economic Forum report forecasts that every emerging job will require basic tech skills. And some of the fastest-growing job clusters related to cloud, engineering, and data will require more disruptive tech skills such as AI and robotics.

But it’s not all about hard tech skills. Equally as important are human-centric and soft skills. IMD’s research on leadership in rapidly changing times reveals the need for a much broader and richer set of core portable skills and attitudes that go beyond tech skills alone.

With many initiatives at both governmental and business levels to help future-proof workers from technological change, it’s tempting to think you can ride out the storm by following pre-programmed processes. But forecasting is not an accurate science. The reality is that career decisions will happen more spontaneously, and through happenstance, amidst uncertainty and rapid change.

Adopting a “protean career”

What this means for career management is that individuals need to be in a state of constant readiness, and flexible and spontaneous in their career decisions.

Adopting a protean state of mind, according to modern career theorists, could help guide career management efforts in such uncertain times. Coined by Douglas T. Hall, a protean career is one where the individual drives their own career based on personal values, and where success is based on how satisfied you feel with life and work, not necessarily how much money or power or fame you obtain.

Research reveals two specific competencies that help individuals to be more protean: adaptability and self-awareness. Kai-Nicholas Kunze, who recently stepped down as CEO from LINGS, a Swiss fintech startup by Generali Assurance, describes his journey in adaptability and self-awareness:

I was happy and terrified when I decided to leave Generali, where I’d been working for over 21 years. My most recent job, establishing a corporate startup venture from scratch was so rewarding, due to pure happiness and finding a sense of purpose. But during the last couple of months, my desire to spend more time with my family, who lived three hours away, became more intense. I decided to leave the insurance industry and launch a new career in 2020 in personnel recruitment bridging the corporate and startup worlds. It allows me to spend more time with family. And the office is just 10 minutes from my house!

How self-aware and adaptable are you?

In a rapidly changing digital world, having a secure personal base from which you can pursue your career is key. Ongoing reflection helps to better understand your own personal matrix of adaptability and self-awareness. Hall recommends asking the following questions to get started:

  1. Have I undertaken varied projects and assignments over the last few years?
  2. Do I have a network of relationships that both challenge and support my growth?
  3. Have I been consciously seeking learning opportunities?
  4. Have I been engaging in personal reflection?

While reflecting on these questions may not immediately future-proof you against technology changes, it may help you think through what you consider to be important. When circumstances rapidly change, you have your compass to guide you, ensuring that even your most spontaneous career decisions are rooted in your values and aligned with your goals.

Tomoko Yokoi is a researcher at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) Global Center for Digital Business Transformation, where she focuses on digital business transformations and tech entrepreneurship.

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