The Non-Linear Career; celebrate diversity

A lot of people ask me how does it work to have a career that seems to have major dog-legs every few years, and even some massive career changes along the way.

The secret is “the non-linear career”.

Don’t get me wrong. It is neither easy, nor for everyone. It is, for example, not the type that headhunters and executive search firms go for because they dogmatically follow criteria that are all geared to find one person who has done one thing their entire professional lives. It is also not the one that fits into the boxes of, for example, UN employment forms with the multiple choice paths. It is not for the risk-averse. It is not the professional life for those who think about their pension.

So, then, what is a non-linear career? What does this dog-leg CV look like?

Allow me to describe mine as an example. I started my full-time professional life as a soldier, then a Federal Agent, I served in Australia, China, and Mongolia. That’s the first dozen or so years of my career.

But before that even, at uni and high school from the age of about 14, I was sales staff and sales management for the family book store, unloader of freight from semi-trailers, kitchen hand at Pizza Hut, stacker of shelves at Woolworths, touch rugby referee, puller of beer at the Newmarket Hotel…you name it.

The last dozen or so years of my career, since the start of the Noughties, the rollercoaster ride gets wild: human rights expert, human trafficking expert, policing advisor, business developer, organised crime advisor, intelligence advisor, international development professional, non-profit advisor. In that time, titles came and went, including Chief Operating Officer, Managing Director, Director, Technical Director, Team Leader, Principal Consultant, Advisor, Principal Advisor, Strategy Advisor, Planning Expert, Founder, Partner, Evaluator etc. The list goes on.

And yet, despite working experience in more than 45 countries, having lived for long periods in 9, recruiters don’t see a thing.

In contrast, the linear path – the one that works for HR people – looks like this: work hard, don’t make waves, stay on the boss’ good side, wait for promotions, go to company picnics, and look to change employer only when necessary, and only after putting in enough time right where you are.

This is not a secret career path, and of course this path, even if formulaic, works fine for some people. Indeed, it is the one many people take. But it is not the only path, and not the best path for all.

For many, including me, the non-linear career offers an opportunity to explore. There is wide world of professional experience out there, and some of us want to taste it. Just as some people want to travel and some don’t.

For the successful non-linear, it is important not to worry about each job leading seamlessly and successfully to the other on paper. If you are the explorer, seeking experiences the world over, you will have a dog-leg CV; no doubt about it. Accept it. Relish it. And be ready for the hard bumps and surprising turns that sometimes come with rollercoaster rides.

The non-linear career path can be recommended for those who have a spirit for adventure, a high threshold for risk, and relish living without much of a safety net.

By way of encouragement, providing some ideas for the red threads in your career, including some of the most important features the non-linear bring to each role, are:

  • As the original finder of the waters of opportunity in the professional desert, you see opportunities where others might only identify problems.
  • As a ranging problem-solver and overcomer of obstacles the world over, you tend to intuit where the obstacles are. And instead of focusing on the dimensions of the obstacles, your glass-half-full style causes you to focus on how to get past them in ways that don’t burn bridges behind you. But, if someone forces you to burn a bridge, you do it.
  • Your strong sense of independence and self-reliance means that you (most of the time) believe in yourself and your ability to handle and learn new things based on what you’ve been able to accomplish in the past. The key is to communicate this well-founded inner confidence naturally and effectively.
  • You always have been, and will remain, the path-finder.
  • You are not risk averse. The non-linear is not afraid to take on calculated risk and fail. But when the non-linear does fail, as everyone does who ever took a chance, you know how to take it in perspective, brush it off, and move on.
  • Your lack of fear gives you freedom. When a boss doesn’t see your qualities, or fails to reward you, you quite easily look for ways to move forward and even grow, and you don’t take offence at not being seen for what you could bring. Your inner freedom lets you move on; no regrets.
  • Having had to compromise and solve problems in dozens of contexts, you look for often inspiring ways to make things better without blaming others. You are the definition of the solutions-oriented individual.
  • As an expert in blending into a range of cross-cultural situations and making it work, you are a communicator. And you learn to publicise yourself effectively. You don’t sit back and wait for someone to notice you. You know that just won’t happen. You let people know about things you’re working on by making it part of an interesting story. As a classy communicator you share your experiences without bragging.
  • You know that in all jobs, in all work places, in all countries, there are things to enjoy. You can find those little acorns and relish them, even if you don’t like the job, the workplace, or the country. You are a survivor, and survivors survive on the acorns. Do your work well and with a great attitude, but also keep your eyes and ears open for something else you could suggest to take on that might do more to float your boat.
  • As the experienced communicator, you know how to connect to people in a trusting way and build relationships that are mutually beneficial.
  • You are decisive, so you usually know when it is time for you to pack up and move on. And you do it without fuss or apology.
  • You work without a safety net, and usually don’t even think about whether there should be one or not. You know in your heart that you will always find a way, even if you cannot see a picture of it in your head. Yet.

One of the greatest challenges to a non-linear career is recruitment and ‘the HR people’. When someone with a non-linear career gets into a room with the hiring manager, things start to happen. Their sense of adventure, initiative, spirit, passion, and ingenuity makes them shine. But until then, HR people reign. And they usually screen the non-linears out of the field. On the rare occasion the non-linear candidate gets an interview, often they are on the other wide of the world precisely because their careers take them places, so they will still not get in the room. They will often be relegated to the dreadful, death-affirming, non-dimensional Skype interview.

The approach for the non-linear is to showcase in your CV, the cover letter, and in words (if you land an interview), that you really understand what the employer needs, and by emphasising what you bring to the job, including the non-linear features of resilience, adventure, ingenuity, good humour; i.e. your transferable skills and values. You might not have been in the one place for 20 years, but you know how to work in 20 cross-cultural contexts!

Don’t worry too much about what you don’t have. Role criteria are checklists designed to find a 5-legged sheep in a field of 4-legged sheep and, eventually, they end up employing a 3-legged one. If you meet the criteria, then fine, but if you don’t, there is always a chance a hiring manager will see through the HR checklist mentality, so go for it anyway. Remember that when you go beyond the criteria and define what it is the hiring manager wants, they are often recruiting because they need to change it up. Something hasn’t worked in how they did things before. And the non-linear knows all about changing it up.

Looks for ways of getting the attention of the hiring manager first; circumventing HR. The hiring manager often carries a pocket veto; if someone in the field intrigues them enough, they can overrule HR and push for shortlisting the non-linear. This has happened to me when I seriously diverged from the advertised criteria, but conceptually offered a solution to the hiring manager’s very real problems.

Identify and intrigue the hiring manager; it pays off. Early in the recruitment process, try to find out who the hiring manager is, and approach them with a brief message about your claims, and ask whether despite having these strong experiences you should apply. A good hiring manager will look well at the broader nature of your experience, and the candour of the approach, and help you get shortlisted.

Another of the great obstacles in non-linear careers is self-doubt. I have to say frankly, every time a change is coming on, doubt sneaks in, like shadows creeping in on your peripheral vision. When re-writing your CV, something non-linears have to do frequently, the point is to identify those things that have carried through your career; roles, titles, and locations might have changed, but there are ‘red threads’ running through your career, those transferrable values and skills mentioned above. Highlight those red threads and that will help banish your self-doubt.

You’ve got game. And you know it. So just bring it.

The third great challenge to be overcome is the tendency, especially when considering the next big thing, to drift back to the norm. My advice is to celebrate your very own diversity. When you follow a career path based on things you loved doing, things you felt strongly about, or undertook risky journeys to get new experience, and put to good use those skills you most enjoy, and when you make an effort along the way to manage the obstacles and next steps, at the end of it you will be surprised when you look back.

I often get great praise on, and quite some satisfaction from, my dog-leg career path; people look at it and see a book or a TV series (even if, to me, it looks like a boat built by committee and held together by gaffer tape!). Without being melodramatic, the non-linear is exciting to outsiders; the trick is to get your non-linear CV past the HR munchkins and into the hands of people who really want to hire top talent.

In the non-linear career, you need to celebrate your very own diversity if you are going to feel contentment and find success.

In all long, non-linear careers, if you draw a line backwards, you can actually see a path. It is called the road less travelled.


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