A middle-manager client unhappy in her job recently gave me her career wish list. She longs for an opportunity to think more deeply about, and do leading-edge work in, her subject area. She has a desire to focus on tasks that intellectually engage her. And she wants to work with and manage smart people.
What she doesn't want is a hodge-podge of responsibilities that lack any unifying vision or intellectual substance.
Her wish list sounds like the features of a great, high-end boutique shop: focused, clearly defined, sophisticated, providing a niche service or product, and infused with the personality and vision of the owner - a vision shared by the people who work there.
While I've never heard anyone use the analogy of a boutique to describe an ideal career, the concept captures a "work package" for which I increasingly hear frustrated professionals express a desire.
People who yearn for a more focused direction complain about being at the beck and call of bosses who don't know what they want and being pulled in a thousand directions. They are tired of navigating departmental politics; scrambling for non-existent resources; being unable to carry out work to a standard they consider acceptable; and working in reactive environments where nobody actually thinks.
Even senior managers want work that allows them to pay attention to professional content, as I found in a survey I recently conducted of about 60 executives. Almost all lamented that ever-growing demands to satisfy human resource and legislative policies, impossible cost restraints, and staff with bottomless needs for approval and direction have left them with no time to pay attention to what they are being paid for. A vice-president of human resources or marketing wants to be able to do more than worry about filling out forms for maternity leaves; they also want to be able to provide leadership to employees and to turn a strategic eye to professional matters.
About half of the respondents said they wished they had the freedom to concentrate on high-level professional problems, but said such roles are almost impossible to find in most contemporary corporate environments.
High-level professional jobs are indeed scarce, and the advancement ladder can be truncated for those who don't want to move on to a management track. Professional positions, for the most part, are much broader and more generalized in scope than the words "professional" or "specialist" implies. Instead, they require a wide range of skills at a "good enough," rather than an expert, level.
In a recent workshop, one unhappy tax partner at a global accounting firm complained that the many competing demands forced him to do second-rate work. He wryly observed that, "although I'm considered a very senior professional, in fact, I get my most of my specialist skills from a software program." Being a tax partner is the vehicle through which he carries out a wide range of responsibilities, such as leading the practice, marketing services, and grooming young accountants. But all these tasks had little bearing on his expertise in tax regulations, he noted.
He so missed the days when he could "get down and dirty" solving complex tax problems that he asked his firm to relieve him of some partnership responsibilities. As a result, they created a special role for him as the practice's go-to expert.
One can see the advantages that a boutique career has for those who love to practice their craft at a high level. Like the owner of a specialty shop, you can choose what to focus on. You can also make bolder choices. Being a bit "out there" or eccentric can even be an asset, or at least is more likely to be tolerated ("She's a bit weird, but she really knows her stuff"). You have independence, more opportunity to think deeply about a subject, and, if you are very talented, you can become known as an expert.
But there can also be a downside: boredom in mid- and later career from having spent most of your working life doing more or less the same thing over and over. What once was cutting-edge can now be tedious in repetition.
Another possible cost: lost opportunities as a result of being too rigid or picky about what you are prepared to do. One fiftysomething acquaintance has had what could be called a boutique career as an expert in adult education for several decades. She now feels stuck. Reflecting on her work history, she said, "People see me as prickly and unyielding. Sometimes I wish I could have been more flexible, more willing to roll with the punches. I might have been happier. And I might have more choices now."
For people with boutique careers, work is highly personal, intimately tied to their ego and identity. This can be extremely satisfying - but it can also lead to problems of rigid views or single-mindedness. As one communications expert put it: "I have a very particular way of thinking about things and you would have to work very hard to convince me to look at things differently. It's my fingerprint, my signature and vision, and I don't want to dilute it."
A sense of ownership and the opportunity for self-expression can be seductive. But before you embark on a search for a plum boutique career, understand that it's not only about getting rid of the daily headaches and demands that have nothing to do with your skills or talents. To gain entry into the boutique ranks, you have to have something unique and special to sell.
You also have to be willing and able to say "no" to taking on tasks outside what you truly excel at. This is not for the faint of heart. If you are a self-employed consultant, for example, you might have to turn down jobs outside your expertise, even when it hurts to take a pass on income-producing activities. If you work for someone, this may mean renegotiating your job expectations, and if you can't do this, you may have to find another position that allows you to carry out your craft in a more focused way.
But the rewards - knowing you stayed the course, shaping your career in a deeply personal way, and being the go-to person for that special service - can be rich.
ON THE JOB
Beyond the halls of academia and cutting-edge laboratories, the best place to create a boutique career is in so-called knowledge industries, such as government, pharmaceuticals, financial services, and professional service firms. Here's a sampling of jobs and roles that can spur a boutique career:
- Professions that require a high level of specialized training (such as lawyer, physician, chartered accountant), combined with a specialized focus. Example: a lawyer who focuses on environmental issues.
- Professions that require education and focused experience. Example: a specialist in leadership management; a journalist with expertise in global financing.
- Scientists with clearly defined research interests and specialized knowledge.
- Talented specialists, such as chef, stylist, interior designer.
ARE YOU SUITED FOR A BOUTIQUE CAREER?
The more statements that are true of you, the better suited you may be for a boutique career:
- I enjoy thinking deeply about the problems associated with my profession.
- I am known as someone who comes up with unusual and creative solutions to professional challenges.
- I am not afraid to make bold professional suggestions.
- I am one of the most qualified people in my profession.
- I am not prepared to make professional compromises in favour of business results.
- Co-workers with might describe me as rigid when it comes to looking at alternative solutions.
- I have a clear understanding of what I am - and am not - good at.
- I am often described as being a perfectionist
- If something doesn't interest me professionally, I find it difficult to do it, even if I know I should for the money or to benefit my career.
- My colleagues would describe me as doing leading-edge work, in tune with the times.
- I can be difficult to influence on professional matters.
- People seek out my opinion on professional matters; they think of me as an expert.
Special to The Globe and Mail