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Transcript: Why it’s up to you to manage your career

The path people take with their careers has changed, says Peter Cappelli of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Th problem is, no one is quite sure what else will change with career paths in the near future.


KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today I am delighted to be speaking with Peter Cappelli who is a senior professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Good morning, Peter.

PETER CAPPELLI – Good morning, Karl.

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KM – So it seems in this world that it is really up to the individual employee to manage their career. The rich get richer; you start at a McKinsey or an IBM or something and you cascade down but if you start at the middle, or if you start at the bottom, you can't cascade up unless you have unbelievable performance. So it seems like a harsher world for people starting in their careers these days.

PC – I think it is a harsher, it is also a much more uncertain world. I was having a conversations with a colleague at a public utility company and she was telling a story about her spouse and his colleagues, who had gone to elite business schools, and they had all of the advantages that you would think but their timing was all off in that they had gone to work for some of the leading consulting firms and then were going to make the transition to these small start-up firms and ride them to success. Well, they happened to hit it at the moment the economy went down and if they had actually been at a lesser school, if they had not had the fancy business experience, if they had gone to begin their career at a B-grade company that had survived the recession, like a public utility or something that is not as glamorous as they start-ups, they would have been much better off because those companies would have survived. As it were they ended up losing their jobs, losing their companies, often, and they were scrambling now to get back into the career world and those colleagues who bet slightly differently and who happened to be right, given where the economy went, ended up better off. So the uncertainty here is quite high. I think this is something that matters for people who study careers. We are stuck in career management with a really outdated paradigm and the paradigm is one that came out of the world of vocational psychology and it was based on this idea that you could plan your career – you could start in college and map it out. I have a disposition in this area that seems to suit me for this kind of work over here and I will go into that field and I will plan to be here in five years or ten years after that. The idea that you could plan or manage it, even though your client company is not managing it for you, yourself - I think that is almost impossible. The world is so uncertain around you that you could go in with a plan but that plan is going to get knocked like crazy as soon as you experience reality. Two of my favorite quotes these days, one is from the U.S. Army, just reminds people that, "no battle plan survives initial contact with the enemy" and even better is a quote from Mike Tyson who was asked about a fighter who was going to fight him, and the plan he had to take Mike Tyson down, and Tyson says, "Everybody has got a plan until you get punched in the mouth." I think the equivalent here in career management is that you can go in with this plan that you have got and then you confront the fact that the world doesn't play out the way you anticipated. Business cycles change, companies change strategies, some scales become hot where others don't, and suddenly your plan is gone. So, I think the ability tor respond, react, and adjust becomes more important now than the ability to plan which is not that useful anymore.

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