Merits of a broad career

Written by: Emma De Vita Posted: 02/06/2017

‘Jobs for life’ are a thing of the past, so employees are looking for more varied career experiences – but what benefits are there in this approach?

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

So said Apple founder Steve Jobs to an audience of university graduates about his meandering career path. Follow your curiosity, intuition and heart, he urged, because eventually they will come together in unexpected ways. 

There’s an argument that a broader career centred on one area of interest is more fulfilling and more beneficial to business than a career that’s highly specialised.

Considering there are few jobs for life now, and with more career changes becoming the norm, is it better to set out with a broad career in mind? And does the millennial generation instinctively appreciate this as they choose to chase variety, continuous learning and flexibility?

A 2016 Manpower survey of 19,000 millennials from 25 countries found that while they expect to work harder and longer than previous generations, they anticipate greater variety and more career breaks. 

Millennials prioritise money, security and time off, though they define job security differently. They establish long-term career security through jobs that give them continuous skills development, because that’s what keeps them relevant and employable. They see individual jobs as stepping stones to self-improvement rather than a final destination. 

A career journey that’s broad in experience rather than constrained by narrow specialisation is a good thing, argues Nick Lovegrove in his book The Mosaic Principle

“The world is increasingly obsessed with the power of narrow, specialist expertise, but if we always shape our lives that way then we all too easily become one-trick ponies,” he says. Not only does this result in us being unfulfilled, but it also leaves companies with too few staff able to solve complex problems. 

A strong core

So what does a broad career entail? Lovegrove sees it as a career based on a key area of interest – be you a doctor, lawyer or management consultant – but one that ranges across organisations to give you different perspectives.

You could work for a charity or a government department, you could become a non-executive director or chair an industry organisation within a given sector or across sectors depending on your skills and expertise. It’s an attitude that can be cultivated at any stage of your career, argues Lovegrove, whether you’re in your 20s or your 60s.

The key to a broad career is to build it around a central interest, develop your transferable skills and be able to demonstrate how your career has progressed. “The most important thing is that you have to be able to tell a coherent story,“ says Lovegrove. “There has to be a structured narrative to your life.” 

This means showing your career has some organising concept behind it. The biggest pitfall is to come across as random and lacking in commitment, says Lovegrove. “If you lack any kind of central concept, then you come across as undefined – nobody can understand what you’re for,” he says. 

John McLaren, based in London, is the perfect example of someone who’s enjoyed a broad career – though he proudly admits he’s never had a masterplan. He started out in the Foreign Office, before moving into investment banking and then becoming a novelist. He now enjoys a varied career across the arts, and is also a serial Non-Executive Director and Chairman of mergers and acquisitions consultancy the Barchester Group. “I was a bit of a forerunner of what’s happening now,” he says. 

Public impressions

One of the negative aspects of having a broader career, McLaren concedes, is that the outside world doesn’t recognise your career progression, so you risk being seen as someone who just does a bit of this and that. “When you get to 50, on the face of it you’re no smarter than a 30-year-old,” he says. 

A bit of this and that might work well early in your career, says McLaren, but it will get tougher as you get older and your stamina flags. It’s important to have a key skill – or what McLaren calls a ‘home base’, in his case an ability to negotiate and read situations or people. 

But if you get it right, a broad career will make you more adaptable and able to learn continuously. As Sarah Bartram, Associate Director at Zedra, explains: “Things change so quickly that you have to be able to learn continuously, and you can draw on so many different skills. There isn’t a job for life anymore.” 

A broader range of experience gives you more career opportunities, she says, as well as peace of mind when there’s a downturn and you have to turn your hand to something new.

Michele Gallagher, HR Manager at Estera, agrees. “Being able to adapt more readily and to respond well to change, as well as thriving in collaborative working environments, are among the benefits of having a broad career,” she says. It can also lead to “the gift of perspective, the ability to see the bigger picture, and having views on how to improve and innovate”.

But do companies help to facilitate a broad career among their employees? Nick Lovegrove believes large organisations are shying away from it. Demands from professional services or consulting clients for greater specialisation from those they employ have led to these firms guiding their employees into ever narrower roles. 

“I witnessed that happening in front of my eyes at McKinsey,” he says. “The range of experiences people had gained in the firm was significantly narrower than when I was a young consultant. If anything, the trend’s been in the wrong direction.”

Flexible employers

Shelley Kendrick, Director at executive recruitment business Kendrick Rose, says employers should give millennials flexibility to keep them engaged in their work, offering them time out for portfolio work. “It’s about providing millennials with the opportunity to progress quicker,” she says. 

But is all this flexible working possible in the Channel Islands? Kendrick says there’s a brain drain on the islands – those who leave to go to university in the UK often don’t return until their late 30s, when they have a young family in tow and are in search of a better quality of life. But with a limited number of sectors offering good-quality work on the islands, people need to think laterally. 

Originally from Manchester, Kendrick set up fashion retailer Next’s Jersey branch, before moving to the US to do the same in Boston and Washington DC. When she decided to return to the Channel Islands, she switched to working for a law firm. “There weren’t those senior roles available in the retail world here, so sometimes you’ve got to consider what the island can offer,” she explains. 

As Kendrick has discovered, developing your transferable skills makes it possible to leap between sectors. “A key factor about changing careers is that there may be one area within your present field that you’re very good at, that you can transfer into another area,” she adds. 

For her, it’s been recruitment – a constant theme throughout her career – that’s led to her starting up her own business. “It’s interlinked,” she says. “It takes time to find out what you’re good at. Bringing experiences from different organisations, cultures or working practices always adds value across any generation.”

All of which begs the question: is having a broad career essential? “Arguably not,” says Michele Gallagher. “Certain careers require a specific and highly specialised skillset.” 

However, she says a broad career has the potential to encourage innovative thinking and the ability to analyse, adapt and improve. “Employability is having knowledge, understanding and personal attributes conducive to a productive, proactive and collaborative working environment,” she says. 

And which manager wouldn’t want that? 

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