What Cranks Your Career?


By Anne Stockdale

When I was in university, I took a psychology course that discussed "medical students' disease," which is, essentially, a form of hypochondria medical students suffer from after learning about specific illnesses. Later, in the same course, we learned about the different personality disorders classified by the DSM-IV. While studying this text, my best friend and I developed, what I consider to be, a mutation of medical students' disease; rather than diagnosing ourselves with personality disorders, we started diagnosing our friends!

Recently, I found myself doing the same thing. Only, this time, I was recognizing my friends in the pages of C. Brooklyn Derr's, Managing the New Careerist. Derr's book illustrates how to define yourself by your "career orientation" – the motives, values, talents, and perceived constraints that drive your career path. And, although his book is out of print (it was published in 1986), it is by no means out-of-date. (In fact, Derr's theory was taught in my colleague's HR course at a local university, just this year.)

Derr describes five categories of career orientations: getting ahead, getting secure, getting high, getting free, and getting balanced. And, while reading his descriptions of the five careerists, I quickly "diagnosed" several of my friends.

Getting Ahead (GA)

A couple of years after completing university, I met up with an old friend from high school. I knew he had taken a business degree and that, in high school at least, he'd had big plans for his career. I asked what he was up to and he was quick to tell me. He was very excited to be attracting attention from the partners in his firm for some recent successes on projects he had been heading. To achieve those successes, he was working 10- and 12-hour days and frequently travelling across the country. When he was home, he was busy either trying to improve his golf game (since that was what the partners played) or he and his wife were throwing dinner parties for his colleagues and superiors. He was proud of himself, not only for his work accomplishments but also for getting to know some of the important people in the organization. And, although he didn't like being away from home so much, he had is eye firmly on the top of the corporate ladder and felt that he was investing in his future.

Key characteristics of GA types:

  • Gets to know the "right" people
  • Highly ambitious
  • Highly competitive
  • Their lives revolve around their career
  • Motivated by financial rewards, increased influence, and status
  • Makes substantial contributions
  • Will move to another company to advance their career

    Key characteristics of organizations where GA types will flourish:

  • Clear path for advancement
  • Recognition of success and innovation with financial rewards, promotions, and increased status
  • Fosters a competitive environment

    Getting Secure (GS)

    Then there is my sister. She is a teacher, and she is quite happy at the prospect of being in the same career, with the same employer, for the rest of her life. She has no aspirations of becoming the principal. She is not interested in affecting change on a broader level. Instead, she's happy just to teach her class. She takes courses herself, partly out of interest but mostly to help her move into different salary brackets and not for the purpose of promotion. That's not to say she wants to stand still. My sister may not be have her sights set on the top, but she does want her career to move through the usual progression of most teachers: regular increases in salary and seniority based on years of experience and continuing education. And, while she may not need or want to be the shining star among her colleagues, she is hard working, dependable, and dedicated to her students – and, as long as she feels appreciated for it, she will continue to be committed to her work.

    Key characteristics of GS types:

  • Completely dedicated and loyal to the company
  • Wants lifelong employment with predictable career progression
  • Hard working and prefers a predictable work routine
  • Likes to maintain a sense of order
  • Resists change and outside ideas
  • Wants to be a part of the inner circle for the sake of belonging

    Key characteristics of organizations where GS types will flourish:

  • Reputation for lifelong and secure employment
  • Predictable patterns of advancement
  • Well-developed middle management
  • Rewards loyalty and conformity

    Getting High (GH)

    A former colleague of mine, however, considers security to be at the bottom of her list of motivations. A few years ago, she walked away from a very lucrative and secure job in the business world to start all over in (and at the bottom of) an entirely different industry. She wants to be a chef, a profession where "paying your dues," means years of washing dishes and prepping ingredients before getting a chance to actually cook anything. The hours are terrible and the pay is worse. But she's thriving in her new career. And when she speaks about it, you can see how alive she is. She, like all GH types, is not driven by the promise of lifelong employment or financial incentives. (In fact, her parents offered to help her buy a house if she stayed at her original job.) Instead, it's about being excited by the work she's doing.

    Key characteristics of GH types:

  • Thrives on interesting and challenging work
  • Driven to learn new concepts and refine his/her skills
  • Not motivated by traditional rewards, such as career advancement or financial incentives
  • Will exchange autonomy if necessary
  • Will not hesitate to go where the excitement/challenge is

    Key characteristics of organizations where GH types will flourish:

  • Can be either a large and established organization or a small start-up company
  • Provide the opportunity to refine knowledge and expertise
  • Project-oriented work environment

    Getting Free (GF)

    I think my boss is a classic GF type. She owns her own company, actually several, and she likes to do things her own way. And, while she happily explains business decisions to her staff and welcomes their opinions, ultimately, the decisions are hers. Prior to starting her own business, she worked as a social worker, but she was frustrated by the restrictions imposed on her by the many levels of management she had to answer to. So she went back to school, obtained her MBA, and started her own company in what was then a just-developing industry. And she is not content to just sit back and enjoy her successes; instead, she is constantly thinking of new ways to keep her companies ahead of their competitors. And I find these are the times when she is most fired up and excited. Rather than being frightened or resistant in the face of drastic change, she relishes the challenge.

    Key characteristics of GF types:

  • Does not like to be managed
  • Experts at what they do
  • Not easily bought with financial incentives
  • Will not exchange autonomy
  • Highly self-motivated

    Key characteristics of organizations where GF types will flourish:

  • Loosely structured organization
  • Depend on and value specialist knowledge
  • Flexible in how employees complete their projects

    Getting Balanced (GB)

    My best friend probably best epitomizes the Getting Balanced type. She is a chiropractor, and, although she is committed to and loves her job, she is not willing to sacrifice time with her loved ones. At the same time, she's not willing to sacrifice her career, which she has invested many years (and thousands of dollars) into, for her relationships. In addition, she understands that if she doesn't take care of herself, she won't be as effective in her career or her relationships. But it's definitely not easy finding that balance between work, relationships, and personal interests. I know she struggles to find it, and, when she does, it's relatively short-lived, meaning she's always renegotiating. But she's committed to finding balance because each of these aspects of her life is of equal importance to her. I think one of the reasons she is able to achieve some level of balance is her ability to say "no" when she needs to, unlike the rest of us who just say "yes" and then struggle to figure out how to accomplish what we've committed ourselves to. To her, success isn't about billing the most or having the busiest practice. Instead, it's about actually being able to speak with her patients, spending quality time with her loved ones, and getting the downtime she needs when she needs it.

    Key characteristics of GB types:

  • Career, self-development, and family are of equal importance
  • Loyal and model workers, especially once they've found an employer who meets their needs
  • Must regularly adjust his/her schedule
  • Report being very happy and content
  • Willing to invest several years of "paying dues" in order to achieve balance

    Key characteristics of organizations where GB types will flourish:

  • Offer child-care benefits, such as onsite daycare and paternity leave
  • Offers options such as flexible scheduling and working from home
  • Offers programs to support dual-career couples
  • Generally flexible in how employees meet their objectives

    So, what does it all mean?

    And what about me? Under what category do I fall? After much thought, I have decided that at this stage of my life, I sit on the fence. I have Getting Ahead tendencies in that I want to advance in my career and achieve the financial rewards and admiration that go with that. But similar to Getting Secure types, I like having people rely on me and respect me for my history with the company I work for. On the other hand, I lean toward Getting High since I like being excited by my work. Then there are my Getting Free characteristics, such as disliking having to delegate tasks and being micro-managed. And, finally, like Getting Balanced types, as much as I want a successful career, I also want to have time for myself and with my family and friends.

    Without doubt, I am not the only one sitting on the fence. (The people that I have "diagnosed" above may very well say that my assessment was too extreme, and that they, too, are fence-sitters.) Currently, I am in a relatively early stage of my career, so it's quite likely that I will not remain on the fence forever. It's just as likely that I will move between these types as my personal situation, wants, and needs change.

    And that's the point. There are no hard-and-fast rules in regard to self-assessment. So assess yourself periodically because your personality, motivations, values, and such change over time. You may be the very image of Getting Ahead now, but in a few years when you have a couple of kids or when the kids are grown and you've just bought that cottage and sailboat … who knows?

    Source: Managing the New Careerists, by C. Brooklyn Derr (1986)

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