When I was a teenager, I thought the pinnacle of professional success was being responsible for hundreds of people in an organization. My dad was a regional manager in a big supermarket chain in the Netherlands and had thousands of people working in his area of responsibility and my view of success might have been shaped by that.
Interestingly, when I finally left academia and went to industry to lead an organization with a couple of hundred people, I quickly realized that my somewhat naive view on inhabiting such a position was quite flawed and simplistic. Although there was a strategic dimension to my position, which I enjoy immensely, the majority of my time was spent on coordination, people management and dealing with interpersonal issues.
For all the things I gratefully learned during those years, two main realizations made me move away from those types of roles. First, as you have no time to work on your actual area of technical expertise, your skills atrophy and your knowledge becomes stale and less relevant over time. Especially in the digital world, technology evolves so incredibly fast that even a year can already get you completely out of tune.
The second realization was that I had basically put my fate in the hands of others. My boss and my peers were constantly evaluating me and my performance and any failures or mistakes could easily result in me losing my position. This was exacerbated by the constant flow of reorganizations that the company used to ‘keep the dust out’ — old roles at all levels would disappear and everyone would constantly need to apply for new roles. Although I appreciate the impact large organizations have on the world, I disliked that lack of agency I had over my own life.
My experience is that with the increasing digitalization of industry and society, the traditional hierarchical organizations where middle management is mostly concerned with translating strategy defined by the top into work items for the front line and coordinating the work between different departments are rapidly disappearing. Earlier, I wrote about the three circles in an organization where the main value-creating processes should be mostly automated. So, whereas before most operational issues were coordinated through human processes, these days this takes place through automated means. Consequently, the need for extensive hierarchies and management layers decreases in most organizations. An illustrative example is the adoption of agile software development where, for most companies, the number of first and second-level line managers decreased significantly.
So, rule 6 for thriving in a digital world is to avoid the trappings of climbing the ladder in organizations. Instead, focus on building and developing valuable skills. Whereas during the 20th century, you could go to university and get an education that would last you a lifetime, in the digital 21st century, new technologies develop so fast that you need to continuously educate yourself and build experience with the next wave.
When you focus your energy on building skills, rather than position, it’s much easier to identify new technologies and approaches that you should master. When jumping on these early, you can increase your relevance to those needing those skills and maximize the value you bring to industry. This of course has two main benefits. First, by operating in this way, you ensure your relevance. Second, you regain and maintain control of your own destiny as you decide what skills and capabilities to focus on.
The traditional career path was about climbing the career ladder and, typically, leading larger and larger organizations. The disadvantage of this is that your technical skills tend to go stale and, more importantly, you lose agency over your professional life as others decide for you what your next role will be. Instead, in a digital world, your focus should be on building relevant skills and continuously reinventing your skillset in response to the evolution of the market. As Sophocles, the Greek playwright, said: “It’s a painful thing to look at your own trouble and know that you yourself and no one else has made it.”