Choose and change your career when you please

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So much has been written and said in recent years about the end of the job for life that constant change at work is taken for granted. However, it is one thing to accept that the employment world is different from how it was a generation ago, and quite another to know how to deal with it - or even thrive in it, writes Roger Trapp.

And it is in an effort to guide people through what can be a tangled and hard-to-fathom world that 21 of "America's leading headhunters" have been brought together to write a book. Navigating Your Career, edited by Christopher Hunt and Scott Scanlon and published by John Wiley & Sons, features the insights of recruitment consultants from such organisations as Spencer Stuart and Heidrick & Struggles on choosing and even changing careers as well as the mechanics of salary packages, compensation terms and the like.

It could be argued that some of this has been a key part of getting hired and fired for a long time. But the various experts - who each contribute a chapter - also introduce another concept: the transferability of skills.

Much has been made of the need for employees on the shop floor to acquire a variety of skills in the interests of making themselves truly useful in the modern age. But here it is argued that executives, too, need not stick to the same line of business throughout their careers.

For example, Gerard Roche, chairman of Heidrick & Struggles, points to the appointment of Johnson & Johnson marketing executive Peter Larson as chief executive of the sporting goods company Brunswick and IBM's decision to pick as its chief strategist a former president of the take-out food chain Boston Chicken as evidence that "industry expertise is no longer a requirement for many top management positions".

In the old days, industry knowledge was a necessity for ambitious middle and senior managers, he says. "Executives were promoted for their ability to work successfully in a vertical network of customers, suppliers, operations and processes. Today, as corporations shift gears to radically distinguish themselves from competitors, executives immersed in one industry may be too close to the problems to find breakthrough solutions."

This is partly a reflection of the increased focus on what used to be called "people skills" but is now known as "emotional intelligence".

But Mr Roche also points to a number of other factors that are making transferability possible and necessary. These include deregulation - and hence exposure to competition - in such industries as airlines, telecoms and energy; fundamental changes in strategy; the need for radically different types of management talent as a result of turnaround situations; the trend for mergers and acquisitions; and the associated growth in virtual companies and strategic alliances.

But this still leaves individual executives facing a number of questions, says Hobson Brown, president and chief executive of Russell Reynolds Associates. How should an executive evaluate a move from, say, divisional controller to an operating division head with responsibility for profits and losses? A lot can depend upon the organisation's strategic priorities as well as the professional's own strengths and weaknesses. Accordingly, "a good professional development opportunity may not make for the best career move".

That said, though, there are certain fields within businesses - notably IT - that are likely to remain "hot", just as there are certain industries - particularly IT again, financial services, healthcare and, strikingly, consulting - that are expected to significantly outperform the norm.

As with business in general, career management is not something that is fixed in a day. And, again like management in general, success in it is largely dependent upon attitude.