Our relationship with work has significantly changed over the past century. What started as a series of gigs to provide for the family, became related work experiences with meaning and consistency. With the rise of the corporate ladder in the 1970s and 1980s, we started to think about ‘careers’ and people became focused on climbing to the top of their chosen area of expertise.
Today, the climate is again very different. We have created new professions based around the same skill sets that already exist, and the lines between business and finance, HR and IT, for example, are more blurred. As a consequence, fewer of us are treading the linear career path. People are more open to moving around, and not just between organisations or even sectors, but between different kinds of roles too.
But if you move around so often, whether as an interim, a contractor, or someone who spends only two to four years in one company before moving on, what does it mean for your happiness at work?
The importance of identity
Our identity is our idea of who we are. It relates to our values, our purpose, and impacts how we behave in the world. There is a feeling of security in having a strong sense of identity, and many people spend time trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. A strong sense of identity also tends to be linked to better mental health, greater self-esteem, and improved life satisfaction.
And what we do for a living can form a big part of our identity.
The career identity dilemma
Our set of skills define our identity as a professional, and for people who have always stayed in one area, that career identity is easy to communicate - “I work in finance in media”, or “I work in finance in pharma”, for example.
However, when you move from company to company and your career is made up of isolated silos, it becomes more difficult to explain who you are and what you do. How do you summarise a horizontal career journey in one snapshot?
And how will your varied experience impact you when it comes to trying to land your next opportunity? Will you be seen as a jack of all trades compared to someone who has spent twenty years honing their craft in one organisation?
Then there’s the perception that if someone is never in one place for long, they won’t have ever fully immersed themselves in a team or culture - and does that mean they will be less of a team player? Interims or contract workers may also be concerned about how gaps between projects might be perceived.
Yet, the flip side is that you’re sure to be more challenged if you move around more than you would if you’ve only worked in one place. You experience different people, cultures, and ways of working, allowing you to grow in a way that wouldn’t be possible if you spent your whole career in just one or two places. Plus, when you move onto a new company or project you'll be able to offer a fresh perspective, which can be very beneficial.
Working in a variety of places also means you’ll receive feedback from a much wider range of sources. That’s the great thing about working as an interim - you build up this amazing network of people and testimonials, and that gives you credibility.
In fact, add all your experiences together, and you’re arguably better able to claim expertise in your specialism, whether it’s finance planning, managing risk, or cost-savings. It’s how you bring all your experiences together into something cohesive that gives you your identity. Once you have that career identity, it becomes easier to communicate what you do - both inside and outside of work.
What is your purpose?
Moving jobs frequently, or working as an interim or contractor, means professional freedom. But how do you decide which projects to choose, and how does this impact your career identity and subsequent employability?
Psychologists believe that we form our identity by matching our talents and potential with available roles. And, that our ultimate goal is to make choices consistent with our true self.
We can use this same strategy when making career decisions. Start by understanding your strengths, then build your experiences around those strengths. Think about the impact you want to drive in the world. What is your purpose? What is your mission statement? Then choose companies or projects that fit.
Everything you do then has a theme. Perhaps you help companies with cost-saving, or organisational change, or innovation. This then becomes your career identity, and you’ll be able to communicate it - with certainty - to potential employers.
Fran Cardells is a Senior Director of Strategy & Innovation at Salesforce, the leader in customer relationship management (CRM) and SaaS. Fran’s areas of expertise include corporate innovation, enterprise technologies and internet businesses. Prior to Salesforce, Fran held roles at a number of other innovative companies, including Google.