Is zig-zagging for you?

22 April, 2019

The potential of a zig-zagging career - for individuals, as well as for the organisation

Recently, I was talking to one of our leaders who is leading a function. He was keen on taking on a P&L leadership role. However, since he did not have enough exposure in other functions. I encouraged him to take a smaller role in another function to broaden his skillset. He was quite reluctant  as he did not want to leave the safety and comfort of his functional expertise. He was hoping that by just doing well in his current function, he would get the broader P&L role.

This is not unusual. Traditional career trajectories are predictable: you study a subject, get a job in the same field, and continue to climb the career ladder steadily. But times have changed. While linear upward movement is still the norm in many places, more and more people are discovering a more intriguing approach – zig-zagging.

A zig-zag career, like the name suggests, involves varied roles across divisions or even industries. One might zig and zag within a single organisation, or between different companies. Zig-zaggers tend to be flexible, curious, highly adaptable and strong learners. If that description rings a bell, then this approach could be a great fit for you.

This week, my message focuses on the pros and cons of a zig-zag career – Is zig-zagging the right strategy for you, and how should you go about it? Plus, from an organisational perspective, why should we value zig-zaggers?

A quick clarification: zig-zagging means that the decisions you make are intentional. Some people do so out of choice, others may reinvent themselves out of necessity – either way, zig-zagging is a thoughtful career strategy. It is not the same as drifting from one role/company to the next, with no planning or meaningful goals.

The merits of a zig-zag career

A zig-zag approach offers you a few key advantages:

1. Allows for self-discovery andcourse correction

The specialty you chose at the beginning of your career may not have turned out to be as rewarding as you thought – or maybe you’ve reached the end of your growth in it.

If your job satisfaction levels have plateaued, zig-zagging could help you get out of the rut. Exploring new horizons could help you find your true career sweet spot, which might be waiting for you over in the next division or in another city.

2. Enhances problem-solving skills

By bringing together skills and knowledge from various fields, you also enhance your problem-solving credentials. With a broad-based, multi-disciplinary approach, you can view the situation from different angles and come up with innovative ways to solve new, unfamiliar problems. This is particularly valuable today when thriving in uncertainty has become a must.

3. Builds resilience

Zig-zagging helps you build resiliency – not just against boredom but also redundancy. The contexts we work in are changing rapidly. The longevity and relevance of skills and training is reducing significantly. If anything, what you need to learn is how to learn. By developing the ability to switch roles, pick up skills and thrive in a new environment, you protect yourself against becoming a career dinosaur.

Zig-zagging isn’t just relevant for mid-career professionals – it’s also a boon if you have been climbing the conventional ladder for decades but are now in the mood to try something new. More leaders than ever before are experimenting with fresh roles or writing a brand-new professional chapter for themselves. It’s no longer unheard of to have a couple of meaningful careers during your working life.

The benefits of zig-zag also extend to the organisation. In the Huffpost article, Does Your Career Zig or Zag?, Caroline Dowd-Higgins explains why so many corporate giants are hiring zig-zaggers:

What they bring to the table is innovation, an ability to be flexible and embrace change, and a fresh approach to solving problems with creative solutions. Recruiters and hiring managers are now welcoming the new industry zig-zaggers because these professionals know their unique value-add in the workplace.

In her Glassdoor article, Why Career Zig-Zagging is Good, Julie Bishop outlines the win-win outcome of embracing zig-zagging:

Many companies realise the advantage of having agile employees…. If HR hung out with marketing more, if design understood the UX team better, or sales incorporated social into their techniques; it’s an obvious win-win. Not only is there variety in your job as a zig-zagger, but there are the extra knowledge and skills which will help you perform better, plus the win for employers is better productivity.

What to watch out for when zig-zagging

However, zig-zagging does have its downsides, especially if it’s haphazard or too frequent. As a perpetual zig-zagger, you would get in the way of your own growth. To derive the benefits of any role, it’s crucial to complete a learning cycle – stay in it long enough to absorb fresh learnings, upskill and contribute your fair share to the team. If you leave before you have a chance to accomplish these things, then the advantages of zig-zagging are lost. Excessive company-hopping also makes you look like a flight risk, which can damage your future prospects, especially at organisations that prize longevity.

Leaders who are thinking of bringing a zig-zagger on board must ask a few crucial questions. Has the candidate switched numerous companies, or zig-zagged mainly within 1-2 organisations? Did the job changes take place within a very short window of time, or are they spaced out at regular intervals? Is the candidate able to clearly articulate the relevant skills and unique abilities they bring to the table?

Key insights for zig-zaggers

If you’re considering a zig-zag approach for your career, here are six things to keep in mind:

1. Assess the quality of tenure

Ideally, zig-zagging should produce a series of productive, fulfilling work experiences. How do you know when it’s time to move? The time period alone isn’t a good enough indicator – your accomplishments are more important. Have you learned new things and contributed value?

The challenge is knowing the optimal time to make a shift. Often, I find people make a shift prematurely without having learnt sufficiently from their current jobs. It is important to have a strong track record of results delivery and impact.

2. Set a long-term goal

It can be easy to think of zig-zagging as a short-term approach, hopping from one independent goal to another. However, having a broad long-term objective can guide you towards the most productive moves. What is your five-/ten-/twenty-year objective? What diverse competencies and experiences would help you get there? Look for ways to add these to your repertoire. Your next move should act as a stepping stone to your bigger goal.

3. Pay attention to transferable skills

Transferable skills form the backbone of a successful zig-zag journey. How can your collective work experiences bring value to a new chapter? Focus on these strengths when you’re applying for a non-traditional career move, and make sure to provide examples and references that back up your claims. Clearly showcase your value-add in the new role.

4. Don’t plan too much

While it’s good to have a long-term objective, you should also be flexible enough to seize opportunities as they come your way. It’s impossible to see the future clearly. Down the line, you may arrive at doors that don’t even exist yet or come across the chance of a lifetime. In her commencement address at Harvard Business School, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg highlighted the value of being flexible and open to non-traditional career moves:

Look for opportunities, look for growth, look for impact, look for mission. Move sideways, move down, move on, move off. Build your skills, not your resume. Evaluate what you can do, not the title they’re going to give you. Do real work. Take a sales quota, a line role, an ops job, don’t plan too much, and don’t expect a direct climb. If I had mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed my career.

5. Dip your toes

It isn’t easy for everyone to take the plunge. If you’re unsure about zig-zagging, test the waters from within your current role. Volunteer for a stretch assignment that takes you out of your comfort zone. Embrace challenges that demand new learning. Volunteer for an ad-hoc project in a different geographic location. Attend a training programme for a new skill. Reach out to colleagues in the field you’re considering and get their viewpoint. These smaller steps will help you determine if a big move is the right choice for you.

6. Explore within your organisation

The answers you’re looking for may not necessarily be outside your current organisation. One of the biggest advantages of working in a large corporate with an international presence is that there’s no shortage of opportunities. So, before you take the step of looking outside, take a good look within. Let us know you’re open to new experiences, and talk to your manager about your aspirations. You could also reach out to your network of colleagues to tap internal openings. Remember, your existing credentials are already known and valued within the organisation, giving you a distinct edge. The key of course, is to ensure that you excel in your current role. That will give you a lot more leverage to seek what you are looking for.


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