In the two previous articles of this series (“No More ‘Climbing the Corporate Ladder’” and “Managing the Future of Your Career”), we explored how the world of work has changed and the ways in which successful leaders and executives had adapted.

Today, we’ll sum it all up by looking at the three major takeaways from our survey of 50 thriving senior executives: traverse with your edge, master your affiliation needs, and learn the difference between provincial and cosmopolitan knowledge.

Lesson No. 1: Traverse With Your Edge

As we mentioned in “No More Climbing the Corporate Ladder,’” “traverse” is a skiing term that means to lead with the edge of your skis. Your ski edge gives you maneuverability.

In career traversing, you lead with your skills edge. Your edge gives you maneuverability through different terrains. Here is an example of traversing from the career of James, one of the 50 executives we spoke with:

After receiving his MBA from Columbia University, James went into banking. Various assignments at Mellon Bank and Bank of America eventually led to James being hired as President and CEO of a California bank.

In 2009, James’s bank was acquired and he was without employment. There was a consolidation of banks, so career continuation was impossible. James created a one-person consulting firm with an initial focus on what he calls “credit-dependent companies.” Using his personal relationships with West Coast bank presidents, James was able to negotiate settlements so that both sides could have something of value.

By 2013, the recession had ended, and one of James’ clients came to him for consulting assistance. The consulting opportunity led to an offer to become chief operating officer of the client’s organization. James’s assignment as COO was to double the size of the medical products distribution company and then sell the company to a national player. This assignment was completed within eighteen months.

Once again, James opened his consulting practice. One of his clients was a nonprofit organization. This consulting assignment brought him exposure to new areas like fund raising and working with agencies in Washington, D.C. This assignment was completed after two years. The contacts James developed brought him to the notice of a board member of a nonprofit company in his town. James was offered the position of chief executive officer for a California human services organization with a budget of $265 million.

As you can see, James has been a bank president, a distribution company COO, and a nonprofit CEO. Between these W-2 employment assignments, he worked as a consultant on a project-by-project basis. It was his 1099 assignments that led him to the W-2 assignments.

If you view James’s career from a ladder-climber’s perspective, he appears to have had a “hodgepodge” career. But that is not how James sees it:

“I have centered my professional life on one strong theme: I solve financial and organizational problems from the perspective of a banker. Had I identified myself as a ‘banker,’ my goose would have been cooked as the banking industry continued its consolidation. Instead, I have worked with medical products, retail companies, construction companies, and a giftware company. It has been fun, a real learning experience. But my core identity remains the same. It never changes: I solve financial and organizational problems from the perspective of a banker.”

Ted is another executive we spoke with whose career offers a great example of traversing with your skills edge:

Ted began his IT career working with a variety of large corporations. Five years later, he moved to a technology consulting firm. Ted’s success as a consultant in an assignment involving ocean cargo issues led to an opportunity to become chief information officer for a company in the ocean freight transportation industry. Five years later, he was once again consulting. His consulting assignments helped him gain credibility in the financial services sector, and Ted is now CIO for a global financial services company.

In commenting on his professional life, Ted describes his edge as a constant even while his assignments changed continuously: “My skills are coaching and developing people in technical environments. Internal or external, I use the same tools. I just apply those tools in different ways.”

cliffLesson No. 2: Master Your Affiliation Needs

“Affiliation” is the desire to be an integral part of something larger than yourself. That something could be as small as a team that will finish a project this month or as large as an institution with a mission to make the world a better place.

In the W-2 phase of a career, moderate degrees of affiliation are helpful; you are part of a corporate team. When you are in the 1099 phase, however, you are not really part of a client’s team. You are helping a team for a period of time, and then you leave.

How do you manage your affiliation needs and your professional relationships when you are traversing between W-2 and 1099 assignments?

The answer is to focus on professional associations to meet your affiliation needs. Professional associations are work-related reference groups outside of any specific corporation. These reference groups can focus on function/profession (e.g., American Psychological Association, Financial Executives International, American Marketing Association); industry (American Bar Association, Massachusetts Biotech Council); or geography (Chicago Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Crossing Association of Boston).

Successful careerists take their association memberships seriously and view them as ways to meet their affiliation needs. It is important to understand how critical these professional associations are for your career. In the 21st century, associations will play the same role that trade guilds played in the Middle Ages: They will be sources of stable affiliation in an unstable project-oriented world.

The connections you make in professional associations will form the core professional network you need to help you traverse between 1099 and W-2 roles.

Simply joining associations is not enough. You need to become known within each association. You need to be a committee member, not just someone who sometimes shows up for the occasional cocktail party. That means you need a strategy for each association you join, and you need to limit your associations so you avoid spreading yourself too thin.

Lesson No. 3: Learn the Difference Between Cosmopolitan and Provincial Knowledge

In the W-2 phase of a career, leaders are often hired to manage the work of others. Moving up the corporate career ladder means leaving the technical mastery of “doing stuff” to other people.

For example, a hospital CEO may have management responsibility over a surgeon, but that doesn’t mean we know how to perform surgery. The U.S. secretary of defense may be responsible for the conduct of the military but lack the skill to take apart a rifle.

The skills necessary to “do stuff” at a tactical level are referred to as “provincial knowledge.” On the other hand, strategic vision and emotional intelligence – which increase in value as one moves up the corporate ladder – are what we call “cosmopolitan skills” because they can be of value in any industry or organization.

Lou Gerstner took over IBM without any skills as an electronics engineer or even an appropriate background in IBM’s technological foundation. George Marshall moved from being a soldier to running the Department of Defense, then to being secretary of state, and then to being president of the American Red Cross. Both were masters of the cosmopolitan skills of strategy and leadership.

When you move from 1099 assignments to W-2 assignments, you may be retained on the basis of your reputation for mastering provincial knowledge. Effective careerists in the 21st century will be strategic about spending time learning cosmopolitan versus provincial knowledge.

For example, Bill, one of the executives we spoke with, was CIO for a global financial services organization. The organization was going to be acquired, and Bill was already thinking about his next assignment. He was anticipating that he would move from a CIO role to consultant role focused on cybersecurity in the financial services sector.

Here’s Bill’s description of his situation:

“I am already thinking ahead to the next move in my career, and that will probably be a consulting position. It is important to keep my technical skills sharp. I am planning to take a course in a technical area at a local community college. I’ll probably be the oldest student in the class.

“I did the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School. That won’t help me now. I need to return to community college and learn new things. You’ve got to stay sharp.

“There is another reason I am taking this course: I want to shape the perception others have of me. I may be 60, but I am not stuck in the old ways. I am always playing at the cutting edge of what is new.”

valleyBill understands that his current W-2 assignment will set the stage for his next 1099 assignment. He is at ease moving from a course on strategy at a world-class institution to a course on new programming languages at his local community college.

Exhilaration and Terror

Traversing a ski slope requires discipline and flexibility – as does career management in the 21st century.

Traversing down a slope is thrilling precisely because it evokes the simultaneous emotions of exhilaration and terror. Managing your career in the 21st century is similarly about embracing exhilaration and terror while unlearning ideas that no longer work.

The closest thing to job security most of us our will ever know in the 21st century is the security of knowing how to successfully generate income under a variety of conditions.

Maryanne Peabody and Larry Stybel are cofounders of Stybel Peabody, an Arbora Global Company. This article is adapted from their book, Navigating the Waterfall: Your Guide to Job Search and Career Management.

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