You can choose different ways of building your career. You can move vertically in a classic manager way. Or horizontally as an expert. Or you can focus on a specific location or on a specific niche.
There isn’t one correct way of building your professional life. The right path for you will depend on what do you want to achieve, what is your starting point, also where do you live and how much effort you are ready to invest.
In our parents’ generation, it was all easier: you selected the approach and if you followed the route it was guaranteed that you achieve what was promised. Also, you didn’t have to worry about changing your chosen path. The world around was stable enough to support you.
Now it is all very different. The world around changes dynamically. And I mean not only the whole digital revolution but also the geopolitical instability. Still, you have to start from somewhere and it helps to have a plan. Even if further down the line the plan will require changes.
When you have around 5 years of professional experience it is a good moment to start a focused approach. It might be more challenging earlier, as you are still finding out what works and doesn’t work for you. But you can also focus your career later on and select the elements from your earlier experience to build up your personal brand.
There are three options I see on the market. Have a look at them below and decide which one will be the right one for you.
With this approach, you select a topic and aim to become the subject-matter expert. You will build your way through specialists positions, moving horizontally. The team management aspect is not a priority in this approach. It is about moving to more advanced and complex projects. Building up your knowledge and portfolio.
This the career where time is on your side: the older you get, the more experience you have under your belt, the more recognised and valued (i.e. paid more) you are. It is important to continue developing though. If you get stuck on some level and stop striving to move forward, there is a danger that you unconsciously transition to the paid doer (see below)
Examples of an “expert career” are: consultant, lawyer, medical doctor, scientist, journalist, niche-focused specialist
The goal of this approach is to gain more responsibility and (ideally) team members each time you change jobs. You move vertically in the organization’s structure getting more senior positions each time. The ultimate goal is to get to the top – becoming the CEO or another member of the C-suite.
You can pursue this type of career in one company or move organisations if the current one doesn’t offer you further opportunities. Depending on the specialism area you maybe even be able to move between different sectors. Finance or HR director can quite easily move from services to operations. For an R&D manager, it will be more difficult to switch industries though.
Being a “paid doer” is the third option of your career’s shape and it’s the one in which majority of us end up. We pick up a job after graduating. Quite often it happens at random.
We do have some ideas when studying but we join our first job in a position that the company happens to have vacant. And then we just go with the flow. If they let us go from one business (or we quit cause the boss was an asshole) we look for and ultimately find the same kind of job in another firm.
There is nothing wrong with this approach, as long as you take it consciously. And being aware of the consequences and risks. Economic change might bring the end to professional opportunities where you live. Digital changes may automate whole or part of your role and the number of offered jobs will become limited. Or you will have to compete with the younger crowd who quickly learns the same what you know.
If you go for paid doer approach to your career, focus on mastering the skills that are transferable to other industries. And if you find yourself in the niche, consider taking one of the two other routes.