Once upon a time those pursuing their idea of a great career followed a slightly inclined path to the top. A path that would steadily scale higher with promotion after promotion until reaching the ultimate end goal: leadership.
Those who followed such a path could benefit from an uncomplicated and predictable system of rewards. Stick it out and you’ll get to the next level. Tenure was the ultimate indicator of merit. The more years you had in the one place, the more experience and therefore expertise and ability others would consider you had.
What a wonderful, fair system. You do your time and you get rewarded.
Problem was (and in many cases still is) it’s a system that’s never worked for the good majority of women and one that doesn’t promote and see individuals advance on the basis of merit. If it did, there would be more women at the top given we’re at least 50% of the population and therefore own 50% of the merit.
It’s a system that advantaged those who could continue along that predictable, slightly inclined path to the top, those who never took career breaks or pursued periods of flexible work. A system that fundamentally benefited those who had somebody at home managing everything else required from life: cleaning, shopping, cooking and caring responsibilities. A system that allowed one partner in a relationship to get to the office and earn an income while the other worked on domestic duties — at least for those able to get by on a one-income household. Put both those people in the workforce and things get tricky.
Generally, the individual taking on the bulk of the domestic duties has been, and continues to be, a woman. Despite graduating in at least equal numbers to men for more than two decades, women continue to take the lengthy careers breaks, pursue flexible work and scramble to leave work on time in order to manage the after-school pick up and put food on the table. And if a woman is not working full-time in the home, she’s often taking on the “second shift” after a full day in the office to manage the bulk of the domestic tasks — basically attempting to meet an impossible range of deadlines and responsibilities.
Taking on the “second shift” as well as career breaks and flexible work sees that slightly inclined path to the top plateau or even take a dive for many women well before reaching particular career goals, such as leadership positions.
So, some women stop waiting for such a career path to work for them and instead find their own way to what they want. They take the creative approach and start improvising.
Career improvisation means abandoning the best laid plans, confidently putting yourself forward despite a lack of “practice” and taking spontaneous actions and risks in order to shift from one thing to another. It’s about putting an end to waiting on particular cues from others, or for certain turning points to occur. When an actor forgets her lines, she improvises. And the results provide new meaning and unexpected consequences to what was previously a known and expected performance.
We’re slowly moving on from the days of having a ” job for life” or even the one profession for life, largely thanks to the way so many women have already improvised the careers they have. We no longer have to follow a career path, we can make the career path up as we go. We can adapt, change and come up with new and innovative ways to manage our work and ensure it fits with what we want from life.
Indeed, such improvising has seen plenty of women opt out of an industry or a profession in which they’ve invested years of education — and the professional services industry knows this all too well with female retention rates known to face a steep decline at the 10-year mark, around the same time women have children — in order to take back control of how they want to live their life and the success they desire. They may look to find alternate employment, start their own business or leave the workforce altogether for a period of time.
A move to improvising a career doesn’t have to kill our ambitions. If anything it can reinforce just how determined we are to achieve them. Some of the most remarkable ambitions I’ve heard have been voiced from women who are well aware there’s no existing or direct path they can take to making them happen. From 23-year-old Holly Ransom declaring she moved into entrepreneurial work because she wanted to run a global company by the age of 30 (and I’m convinced she will) to Boost Juice founder Janine Allis knowing she’d be launching a national franchise before she’d even opened her first juice bar, these women knew or know achieving such ambitions are only as good as their ability to improvise along the way.
In order to achieve such grand ambitions, a degree of flexibility is required including a willingness to adapt and take chances with career turning points. Keeping to the single path provides great focus, but too often requires a one-track mind that can miss the benefits of the forks in the road. It also requires a lot of waiting around — relying on actions from others to reach your career goals. The ability to re-plot your own route to the top can improve the likelihood of getting there. And a capacity for reinvigorating your own career plans according to the turning points you encounter is a necessary tool for achieving success your own way, and coping with the inevitable ups and downs that occur.
The women who lead and achieve remarkable things improvise their way to getting the success they want. They make some plans, but allow those plans to change as frequently as required to meet the turning points they can and can’t control. The unexpected will inevitably come up no matter how well defined the career plan. Personal values and attitudes may change, and life outside of work may simply require more attention for a period of time. Often, these women haven’t been able to follow a set path to achieving their ambitions because no woman has achieved such ambitions before. They might be the first in a particular role, the first to take a career break or the first to work flexibly in a senior leadership position in an organisation. It’s not always fair, often they’ve had to work harder than the men around them as well as those sticking to the simpler, more tradi- tional path to the top. Many also know to enjoy the career plateaus that occur on their way to achieving their goals, instead of feeling the only way up is to take that continued, unforgiving, steep assent to the summit that allows little time for everything else that’s going on.
And they’ve taken advantage of the fact that a career can encompass a very long time. We can work at it for more than 50 years if we like, allowing plenty of scope to slow it down and speed it up according to the different life stages we experience.
This is an edited extract from Angela Priestley’s book, Women Who Seize the Moment: 11 Lessons from those who create their own success.
Check out 10 ways to improvise your career here.
Angela is doing three sessions at the Vitality show this weekend in Sydney and sharing more lessons from her book. Check out her three sessions, occurring on the ‘Empowerment Stage’.