Are You A Chameleon Or A Protean In Managing Your Career And Your Organisation?

Published: 29 July 2012

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by Michelle Moss

South Africans are becoming adept at change management. Industries are changing. Managers have to build greater flexibility into their organisations. They track trends and technologies. They engage in risk assessments and prepare for a future that may move their companies in entirely new directions.

They do all this for their organisations … but forget to do it for themselves. There is a mismatch here. If business has to be future-ready, so does the individual.

This logic is increasingly accepted internationally where personal preparedness for a new future leads to the development of ‘the protean career’, a term that is now quite common among career professionals and industrial psychologists.

This career is driven by an individual’s own values and goals. The individual is eager to try new things to foster personal growth. New skills are embraced and time out may be taken to achieve some personal ambition.

The traditional careerist is a chameleon who only adapts to immediate delivery requirements and thinks in linear terms, moving ever onward and upward. He (or she) follows standard practice rather than personal inclination. But if the business changes, narrow, industry-specific skills may suddenly seem irrelevant.

In contrast, the protean career-builder is ready for change and savours the chance to do something new.

Locally, we now see growing acceptance of CVs with some protean elements.

Until recently, a ‘gap year’ raised a few questions. Flitting across industries raised eyebrows. Moving into seven or eight different jobs in perhaps 10 or 12 years raised a red flag. Not any more!

Locally, such behaviour no longer excludes a candidate from an initial interview. Internationally, it might catapult the candidate onto the shortlist!

One factor driving the trend to the self-directed career strategy is the realisation that in 10 or 15 years an individual may be applying for a job that does not currently exist.

Blogger-entrepreneurs did not exist five years ago. They do today.

Other careers are just over the horizon; for instance, advances in bio-tissues, plastics and robotics could turn body part manufacture into a highly lucrative niche industry.

Pharming (rather than farming) could be another growth industry as the need for genetically engineered livestock and crops will increase dramatically as the world’s population increases.

Longevity will increase the demand for old age wellness managers. Genetic screening is another niche opportunity.

Some niches, like social media, will go mainstream, creating career opportunities for ‘social media officers’ who will have the job of building the number of ‘likes’, ‘fans’ and ‘followers’ for consumer brands.

The protean has the mental flexibility to succeed in an environment like this. The traditional careerist is more likely to sit tight in a declining industry and decline along with it.

So, how does one develop into a potential ‘shape-shifter’ (another term for the protean)?

International experience highlights six distinct patterns of behaviour:

Downscaling – these individuals live within their means and create a financial reserve (not for retirement but for mid-career). They need money to take a sabbatical or enrol at Heidelberg University to study philosophy or go to the Himalayas.

  • Developing supplementary sources of income – perhaps by turning a hobby into a small business or earning extra cash from consultancy or weekend work (not only to build a financial reserve but to take the individual out of the nine-to-five rut).
  • Getting fit – by looking after yourself, exercising well and eating properly. Mental flexibility requires physical health and energy.
  • Cutting TV time – to create space for more reading and self-development. Future-spotters engage in lifelong education and are rewarded accordingly.
  • Knowing themselves – protean career-builders have a clear sense of personal identity and core values and an acute appreciation of what is important in life. They also have a clear idea of where they want to be in the next five or 10 years.

Adopting non-traditional criteria for success – these highly adaptable people set their own standards. To do something meaningful, they will move sideways in their careers or even take a step down if it fills a gap in their lives or enables them to make a contribution. In some professional situations, taking on pro bono work is one way of making a difference.

Protean attitudes are another key differentiator.

The protean is in charge of his or her career (not the organisation). The protean demands the freedom to grow. That may or may not involve advancement.

Their self-esteem is not based on salary or job title. They derive satisfaction from their work and their level of professionalism, no matter what they do. Their own happiness is a key benchmark.

Mobility and adaptability are increasingly evident in the South African corporate environment. However, it is still rare for major organisations to overtly specify the flexi future-spotter and shape-shifter when looking to fill a senior post.

It’s probably just a matter of time. After all, an IT specialist recently became Master Chef SA. That’s quite a shift.

* Michelle Moss is Head of Assessment at Talent Africa, a leading provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development.