Skipping a rung up the career ladder

Career progression can be a bumpy road, particularly for contract workers who don't benefit from the backing of an organisation, and may not always have quite the right experience. New research suggests that the key for successfully getting from A to B in one's career is 'stretchwork'.

by HBS Working Knowledge
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Siobhan O'Mahony and Beth Bechky, researchers at Harvard Business School, describe 'stretchwork' as a job that fits with an individual's previous experience and yet extends their skills in a new direction.

O'Mahony and Bechky looked at the film industry for their research where high-tech contractors "get the next job to get them the next job". They identified various tactics to secure the kind of stretchwork which would guarantee career progression:

Differentiate your self: People must distinguish their performance, particularly contract workers who are paid 'per job', and therefore more likely to come under frequent evaluation.

Get referrals: Referrals are a vital aspect of getting a new job, particularly if that new job offers new career directions for which the applicant might not be entirely qualified. Contract workers are at an advantage here, having to work with a much broader network of people than permanent employees.

Framing and bluffing: "People who are good at presenting their prior experience in a way that allows for an easy translation to the desired job can narrow the gap between their past experience and future capabilities," O'Mahony says.

Discounting: Sometimes one has to accept a job below market rates if it means getting the experience and exposure which will lead to a new position. "It's like playing pool," says a technical writer. "You hit the green ball with the white ball, and the point is to place the white ball to get the next shot. So I take that job in order to learn skills for my next project."

The Harvard research highlights important new trends: with contractors playing an increasing part in our economy, what are the consequences of individuals taking greater responsibility for their career progression? What are the most effective means of converting skills from one context to the next without organisational support?

"People assume that they will keep on moving up until they plateau," O'Mahony says. "The fact is, the process may be much more bumpy than they expect."

Source: Career advancement without experience
Julia Hanna
HBS Working Knowledge, Aug 9 2006

Review by Emilie Filou

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