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Job Hopping- are claims it is bad for your career justified?

Human Resource Management Professor Monika Hamori’s recent report published in the Harvard Business Review in July 2010 (http://bit.ly/byC0ZY) casts doubt on the conventional wisdom that moving jobs can accelerate your promotion through the ranks. In particular she argues this casts doubt on the Boundaryless Career idea (see David Winter’s piece on the Careers in Theory Blog).  Indeed Profesor Hamori identifies 4 “myths” associated with advancement. They are a) Job Hoppers prosper; b) A move should always be up c) Big fish swim in big ponds and d) Career and Industry switchers are penalized. On the face of it, such findings appear to cast doubt on the ideas behind the Boundaryless Career. Lets take a look at each of these arguments in their turn, because clearly such provocative conclusions demand closer consideration.

The Research

The first thing to say is that Professor Hamori is not some opinionated commentator hollering from the sidelines. She has an impressive evidence-base upon which she draws her conclusions. Specifically, she considered 14,000 career histories of non CEO executives in four sectors of the financial services industry. These records were stored by a large multi-national search firm. She also looked at the career histories of CEOs of Financial Times top 500 European companies and Standard and Poor’s top 500 US firms. In addition she collected interview data from a relatively small number of executive recruiters (45) and Business School alumni (20).

The Job Hopper Fallacy

Hamori’s case for rejecting the notion that job hoppers prosper faster rests on several lines of evidence.

  • Firstly she reports that her CEOs worked for three employers on average throughout their careers (with 25% having been with the same company throughout their careers).
  • Secondly amongst her 14,000 non CEO executives, she reported that inside moves produced a “considerably” higher percentage and a faster pace of promotions compared to external promotions.
  • Thirdly, Hamori provides a couple of selected quotes from her interviews with recruiters to support her speculation that companies prefer to see “stability” in their executives’ career paths.

A closer look at the numbers

On the face of what is presented in the Harvard Business Review Article, it is difficult to make any precise arguments about the interpretation of the data, because too little is presented to do this (this is simply a reflection of the demands of writing for a non scientific audience and not a shortcoming of the work upon which the article is based). However I did locate an earlier paper by Hamori and Kakarika (2009, Human Resources Management, June) that reports the CEO data in great detail. This helps to clarify some of the findings.

Firstly according to Hamori & Kakarika (2009) “We found that CEOs who have spent a higher percentage of their career with the organization they currently lead (% of career spent with organization…or have spent their entire professional career with the organization… take almost one and a half years less time [my italics] to be appointed to the CEO position of a large organization, other factors being equal (Models 2 and 3). In addition…specifically, for each additional employer the predicted time to the top will increase by more than half a year, other factors being equal….On average, lifetime CEOs reached their current position in 23.1 years, while those who had six or more employers took 26.75 years to get to the top.”

For example, the statement that “CEOs who have spent a higher percentage of their career with the organization they currently lead… take almost one and a half years less time to be appointed to the CEO position of a large organization” does not specify “one and a half years less time compared to who?”. In fact, looking at the units in which % of career is assessed, it turns out that one and a half years is the difference between someone who has spent 0% of their career with the organization compared to someone who has spent all their career with the org, which is a fairly extreme comparison. (As an aside, note how this relationship doesn’t quite make sense conceptually. Effectively, it says that someone who has spent all their career with the organization that they lead will have gotten there more quickly than someone who has spent none of their time with the organization that they lead?!).

Also, when you look at the size of the correlations, they are less than .10 for two of the three IVs, which is the benchmark below which Cohen says things start to get trivial.

An alternative interpretation of the data: Job hopping is good for your career

So if we compare the most rusted on CEOs with the most fickle regular movers in the sample, staying put provides a time advantage of at the very most 13.64% over about quarter of a century. Whilst these figures provide no support on the face of it for those who advocate moving to enhance a career, the benefits of staying put are hardly so large that it is self-evident that staying put is the best strategy. Does getting to the top three years earlier real mean very much over such a period of time? When set against some of the plausible benefits of moving around such as greater diversity of experience, and perhaps a richer more storied personal history, three years seems a small price to pay. Indeed it amounts to little more than accrued sick leave and a few other days off every year.

A more serious concern is whether the conclusion that not moving is better for advancement can be substantiated. This is based on correlational data showing a negative relationship between the number of moves and the time taken to make CEO. It makes the assumption that those who leave had an equal shot at the top job compared to their colleagues who remain. This is a very dubious assumption to make.

Consider this: suppose a town has an Easter egg shortage, such that each of the seven shops have only one egg for sale. There are seven shoppers who turn up at the first store. Only one is going to get the egg. The remaining six walk over to the next store, where five miss out. These five move on to the next store. Eventually we have a pattern that shows the person who did the most walking (the hapless customer who had to go to all seven stores before securing their egg) also took the longest time to get their eggs. Moving stores and time to get eggs shows exactly the same relationship as moving organisations and time to get to CEO in Hamori and Kakarika’s work. However nobody would advise the customers who have missed out to hang around in the first store because they might never get an egg.

There are far more executives in any one company than there are CEO positions, and if the company has good succession planning in place, then there will be more executives suitable and capable of being CEO than there are CEO roles (one). So even putting aside the very important fact that not all executives are equally capable or suitable of being CEO, the data does not provide any evidence to support the author’s conclusions that staying within the organisation is a good move for anyone other than the person who ultimately makes it to CEO. Now you could argue in the Easter Egg example, that those shoppers who missed out in the first store and move on actually have to join other shoppers already milling around in the next store waiting for the egg to be tossed into the crowd. However, this is still a better option than staying in the first store that has run out of eggs. Indeed the person who moves will secure an egg faster than had they not moved.

The problem lies in the notion of all other things being equal. If the selection process of CEOs was essentially random and also regular within each company, then all other things are cancelled out (are equal), and so you may as well stay and take your chances. However this is a huge and unjustifiable assumption to make in any top 500 organisation that all have very explicit and structured processes for identifying and developing talent. It illustrates a type of “ecological fallacy”, where a relationship observed at the between-person level (i.e., “people who move jobs more often take longer to become CEO than people who move less often”) is used to make an inference at the within-person level (i.e., “for a given person, moving jobs will increase the time to become CEO”). As the two levels (between-person and within-person) are statistically and conceptually independent of each other, findings from one level do not necessarily generalise to the other level.

Consequently, it is entirely possible for the negative relationship to exist at the between-person level while at the same time for job hopping to be beneficial for some (or even all) people. The important point is that the job hopper fallacy is a within-person (or individual level) phenomenon that isn’t necessarily going to be adequately tested using a between-person analysis. At the individual level, which is where the Career Counsellors work (the ones that are explicitly singled out for perpetuating “myths” about advancement and movement), advising an executive who has been overlooked for a key promotion that precedent indicates is the pathway to the CEO position to remain with the company rather than looking elsewhere makes little sense. The research as presented is not powerful enough to pick up such career reversals or plateaus.

So if the executive has been identified as the “most likely to”, then advising them to stay with the organisation makes sense. Indeed the advice may well be superfluous because that executive is far more likely to enjoy a range of benefits, bonuses, perks, recognition, feedback and training that all serve to enhance engagement. The moving to enhance your career may be a myth for that very select group. But for everyone else, given that everything else is not equal, their chances within their current company are not equal to everyone else’s, moving may be the quickest route to a CEO role, even if it takes longer than those who remain because they’ve already been identified as going places.

Staying with the company does not cause a person to become a CEO quicker, it is merely associated with that promotion for those who made it. Clearly if one included all the executives who didn’t move irrespective of whether they made it to CEO or not, the correlation between not moving and time to make CEO would show a very strong positive relationship between time served and time waiting to become CEO. One final point is that the fact that CEOs worked for three employers on average throughout their careers doesn’t really tell us anything about the usefulness of job hopping unless we also know how many employers the people who didn’t make it to CEO worked for. For all we know, the latter group may have only worked for one or two employers, which would support the job hopping idea.

A limited view of promotion and career advancement

In Hamori’s work, promotion (other than attaining the CEO role) is defined as “a better title with more responsibility or propelled the executive to a larger firm”. This is a very narrow definition. It does not, for instance take into account remuneration or other benefits and conditions. It equates the size of a firm with managerial complexity which may be an over-simplification. Managing a large group of people in a well established and otherwise well run and successful organisation may be a lot simpler than managing a small dysfunctional team in a complex, competitive and rapidly changing environment. It also doesn’t take into account a whole swathe of work rewards such as autonomy, altruism, quality of co-workers, surroundings, skill development, freedom, work-life balance, and lifestyle factors to name just a few.

It doesn’t take into account job satisfaction either. People often move jobs because they are frustrated. The ambitious do so because they often perceive their ambitions are being frustrated. It is questionable whether advising such people to remain with their employer is going to result in positive career outcomes in all or perhaps even most cases.

The focus and privileging Fortune Admired and top 100/ 500 companies may well reflect the client-base of the Executive search firm that provided a lot of interviews and career histories for analysis. This may promote the notion that only moves to the higher echelons of these lists can be deemed promotions. If broader conceptions of advancement that go beyond the narrow confines of market indexes are considered, what would be the impact upon the data? A move should be up – is this really a myth? This brings me to the “second myth” – which is that “A move should be up”. This myth came as a surprise to me, because I am not sure how many credible authorities are pushing such a message. Indeed I would argue anecdotally that most credible careers professionals promote privately and publicly the view that “side-ways” moves often provide opportunities, and indeed “moves-down” can provide, as Norm Amundson would say the “backswing” momentum to propel one forward. So this myth seems to be of the straw-man variety.

Performance is overlooked

The study has nothing to say about how the individual CEO’s actually perform. Granted this is a complex and contentious area, however it is important to have a sense of relative performance, because there is a possibility that those who move perform better than those who stay. There is no evidence in their data for this proposition, but supposing it were true, where does that leave the conclusion that moving for advancement is a “myth”? There are several possible confounds that could account for Hamori & Kakarika’s (2009) findings not least of which are ability and personality (e.g., highly able, conscientious and emotionally stable individuals are more likely to stay at a firm and also more likely to become CEO). Another big confound relates to people in the sample who started their own corporations early on (see H&K, 2009, p.361 under Dependent Variable).

For example, a person who starts his own corporation out of grad school would score 0 for time taken to become CEO (i.e., the minimum score) and would score 100% for % of career with organisation (i.e., the maximum score). Obviously this greatly inflates the observed negative relationship!

Big fish and big ponds

Here Hamori uses lists like the Fortune’s most Admired lists to judge whether executives are moving from bigger name to smaller name companies. It would be intriguing to get a close look at this data, because such lists have very significant volatility and turnover. The so called “stumble rate” of companies knocked off their most admired perches from one year the next is quite high (49%), and even in the highest echelons of the top 50 all stars, only 17 companies remain on the list that appeared on the initial one in 2001. Consequently with all this volatility, trying to say anything definitive about moves from big names to smaller names seems fraught with difficulty. Afterall Apple’s market value was $7.09 billion in 2001 (when the Fortune list began), and Microsoft’s was $332.73 billion. So leaving Microsoft for Apple presumably was seen as a bad move. In 2010 the Apple’s capitalization was $225.98 billion to Microsoft’s $225.32. Things change and rapidly.

Anecdotal Data

The arguments are supported with appeals to interviews with executive search recruiters, who reinforce the view that too many moves are a bad thing. They claim they and their clients prefer to see only a few moves perhaps interspersed with periods of stability (e.g. An “eight-year run”).


There is nothing here to support the claim that moving advances your career is a myth. Hamori’s work is interesting, well presented and thoroughly analysed. It makes a provocative contribution to our understanding of career advancement. However her criticism of the idea that movement can lead to success as being a “myth” is premature, and is not supported by the data she presents. There are too many other variables that plausibly might be at play here that are simply not considered within the narrow definitions of career success or within the dataset.

The size of the effects she reports in practical terms seem underwhelming over the period of time it takes to become a CEO. Another way of looking at this data would be to say, if your path to the CEO route looks to be blocked in one company then moving a couple of times may only delay you by about 12 – 18 months in the worst case scenario that you would have made it to CEO had you stayed put. If, however, you wouldn’t have made it had you stayed put, then moving has probably got you to the CEO role faster than staying put. Given there can only be one CEO (in nearly all companies), then my alternative scenario is more likely to apply. In other words this data can just as easily be interpreted to draw precisely the opposite conclusion.

There are valid criticisms that can be levelled at the Boundaryless career idea, for instance Rodrigues and Guest (2010) review evidence suggesting that moving jobs is not on the increase to the degree that some commentators claim but has always been part of the scene. They conclude that “what we seem to be witnessing is not the demise but rather a redefinition, a growing complexity, and a more subjective perspective on career boundaries (Heracleous, 2004).” pp 1170. I’d agree.


Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hamori, M & Kakarika, M. (2009) EXTERNAL LABOR MARKET STRATEGY AND CAREER SUCCESS: CEO CAREERS IN EUROPE AND THE UNITED STATES Human Resource Management, May–June 2009, Vol. 48, No. 3, Pp. 355– 378

Heracleous, L. (2004). Boundaries in the study of organaization. Human Relations 57(1): 95-103.

Rodgrigues, R.A. & Gust, D. (2010). Have Careers become boundaryless. Human Relations, 63, 1157. DOI: 10.1177/018726709354344


I’d like to thank my colleague Dr Amirali Minbashian for his feedback and comments that have helped to shape my thoughts for this piece. I’d also like to thank David Winter from the Careers in Theory Blog http://bit.ly/aPBGq9 for agreeing to us posting our thoughts simultaneously on The Factory Blog and the Careers in Theory Blog.

The Factory Podcast Interview with the late Dick Bolles

The Factory Podcast Interview with Dick Bolles

Sadly, Dick died on Friday 31st March 2017 soon after his 90th birthday.  I am re-posting this interview that he generously granted me in 2010 in California.  In the interview amongst other things,  he discusses the idea of legacy.

Vale Dick Bolles.


Jim Bright 8th April 2017

The interview

I arranged to meet with Richard Nelson Bolles or Dick Bolles as he is otherwise known during the National Career Development Conference in 2010. He is no stranger to anyone as the author of the spectacularly popular What color is your parachute? self-help careers guide. I was interested in hearing what motivated him to write the book, how it came about and how his life took him in this particular direction.

His book has been published for more than 40 years and is updated every year – something that is very rare in publishing, let alone careers publishing.  Dick was concerned his book had been trimmed down for the recession the US was experiencing at the time and had resolved to increase the size of the book in the next edition.  The striking thing about the book is how the ideas are presented in very practical terms and always from the job hunters perspective. Nor is Dick afraid to tackle bigger subjects, and his religious training gives him the authority of voice to address issues of purpose very effectively.  This is an area of job hunting that is often overlooked, yet how common is it, that job hunters lose heart and motivation in the face of rejection?

The interview was recorded over lunch in a restaurant in the hotel in San Francisco. It was interesting and impressive to see several people including waiters come up to our table to thank Dick for his work, telling stories of how his book had improved their lives. In the interview, I ask Dick what he wants his legacy to be. His answer is very interesting. Enjoy!

Dick Bolles

Click on Dick’s photo, or the logo below to hear the podcast (49 mins).

Interview with author and all round careers guru, Dick Bolles, author of the 10 million selling What Color is your Parachute.


Fear – the major barrier in career development

There is a common psychological factor that is involved in many career-related issues and that is fear. What comes to mind for you when you hear the word fear? For me there are many different images such as of being a child in a dark place, concerns for physical safety, a feeling of nausea and dread that something bad is about to happen to me or to people I care about, a sense of paralysis or inability to act when you need to, the realisation that it is tax time again….

Fear is hard to pin down, and it is often difficult to detect in other people. Simply observing the behaviour of others may give a false impression. Some people can do things that we feel are immensely brave and then we discover the person was acting out of, or in a state of fear. Sometimes it is the opposite, and people who say they are fearful of something, ultimately when confronted with it, display fearless behaviour.

fearful employee

Fear can be classified into: subjective apprehension (e.g. worries), physiological changes (such as tremors in the hands), expressions (e.g. saying I’m scared) and attempts to evade or avoid situations. It can be focused and on-going such as a neurosis of being alone, or a phobia for spiders or it can arise suddenly for instance during an assault. It can also seemingly have no obvious cause or focal point.

Fear presents a major barrier in career development. For many people applying for a job is a key trigger, to the point that some will shake and others will avoid applying for jobs, or not turn up for interviews. Deciding to stay in a job or leave is another career development decision that is often accompanied by fear. Common fears relate to feelings of inadequacy, unpopularity, unfamiliarity, and advancement.

Fear is a major component in a failure to stand up to or to confront rude, aggressive and bullying behavior in the workplace. This applies not only to workplace bullying but also to commerce, where the fear of losing a contract, a licence, client or customer can lead to quite extraordinary behaviours. One of the most common reactions, sadly, is for those who are fearlful to lash out at others who they perceive to be even more insecure than themselves. Think of Basil Fawlty venting his insecurities on Manuel rather than addressing his own problems to get an idea of how people and companies sometimes respond when acting out of fear.

Fear can also be a reason for the very often pitiful feedback given to employees, and communication between people at work more generally. Some people have an enormous sense of dread about giving feedback to others, that results in them either avoiding giving it, or delivering it in a very charged and emotional manner that rapidly gets out of hand, becomes personal and aggressive and undermines the whole purpose of giving it.

Fear stifles some of the most important career behaviours we need to exhibit to be successful in the 21st century workplace such as flexibility, openness, persistence, curiosity, creativity, teamwork, and leadership.

Fear insinuates itself in the most of our lives, so it more a case of mastering fear rather than striving to eliminate or avoid fear. Spending your career running scared of real or imaginary demons is no way to spend a life. A first step might be to reflect on any areas of your career where you hold fears, and to develop strategies to manage that fear, you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. As Mark Twain said, “ Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear”.

Job Hunting and dating a socially or sexually transmitted metaphor?

When I published a book in 2000 saying that job hunting was like dating (Resumes the get shortlisted, by Jim Bright and Jo Earl, Allen & Unwin), I never expected the reverse situation to occur, but apparently my esteemed Herald colleague and expert in all matters sexual, Samantha Brett, thinks so. In a column in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2008 (Turn-offs on the first date, SMH, Friday 30th May), she begins “with first dates feeling more like gruelling job interviews…I’ve decided to help out singletons who are finding it a bit of a struggle”. (Since then a job hunting book based upon the metaphor of dating has been published too, and a google search of blogs finds the idea cropping up all over the place- this metaphor is the new careers socially transmitted disease!!). Now while glossing over why a happily married man like me should be reading Sam’s columns (I only read it for the pictures..), I realised that Sam may have a second career in the sexy world of careers advice, because her tips on dating turn offs all apply equally to job hunting. So lets get to grips with Sam’s tips.

1. Don’t be late. Almost guaranteed to kill your prospects at an interview. Saying you got caught out by traffic/public transport doesn’t cut it these days, savvy people expect it to be an ordeal getting anywhere in Sydney and leave the week before to arrive on time.
He’s rude to the waiters. Sam thinks such people have no respect or common decency, and recruiters are likely to think the same. In careers-speak this means don’t be rude to anyone associated with the organisation you are applying to, and more generally think twice about it in terms of reputational harm at any stage of your career.
He talks about his ex. First date conversations should always be devoid of ex-speak. Exactly the same goes for interviews. Getting into long and involved stories about how you were misunderstood, overlooked and generally done wrong to by your previous or current employer is not a sexy look in an interview. Better to say that all was great, but now is the time to find new challenges, and that you left on good terms.
Don’t go Dutch! Apparently men who don’t for dinner first up are emotionally stingy. In interview terms, don’t make a great fuss about claiming expenses associated with getting to the interview – sure if you are being flown interstate that is generally (but not always) at the employers expense, but demanding the reimbursement of a bus ticket is not a good look, unless you got on the bus in Perth…
Too needy. I have been on interview panels where the applicant has literally begged for the job. It is an unedifying and frankly unsettling experience, and is almost certain to raise questions in the minds of the recruiters.
Anti-feminine. This related to men apparently not liking women being inconsistent in their roles – i.e. wanting to be taken out to dinner (man pays) but not wanting to cook for him. The career equivalent is demonstrating an inconsistency in the role expectations you have of an employer. For instance demanding that you be given flexible hours but complaining that members of your team are “never there”.
Too ditzy. It is interview poison to present as immature, disorganised, eccentric or otherwise whacky. Interviewers haven’t got the time to look behind the ditziness or make allowances. It is not their role. Ditch the ditzy act.
The interviewer. While it is good, even essential to have some questions to ask of the interviewer, it can be a high risk strategy to try to turn the tables and fire a lot of pre-prepared questions at the recruiter. It is fine if you really want to come across as assertive – arrogant even – but appreciate that such behaviour is unusual and could be interpreted by insecure interviews as impertinent, up yourself or indifference.
Unhealthy. I can still to this day recall the applicant who insisted on sharing a blow by blow account of his piles with a panel desperately trying to get the conversation onto higher ground. Never offer comments about your health unless specifically asked.
Presentation. Sadly there is a lot of research suggesting that appearances at interview carry a lot of weight (not unlike me in fact!). Attending to your appearance is important, and getting clothes that fit properly and minimise bulges etc are a good investment in your career. Simple tips here include not wearing blue shirts if you perspire a lot – stick to white. Take a good quality deodorant with you and apply it in the lavatory before you interview. Wear a good quality subtle cologne.

Applying for a job is like dating, ultimately you want the employer at the end of the process to say, “where have you been all of my life”.

Career improvisation

Making it up as you go along is probably one of the most effective success strategies you can implement. The trouble is that patrons of the predictable try to brainwash lesser mortals like you and me with their grand narratives (tall stories) about how anyone can achieve complete control of their lives. These narratives are eagerly devoured by those wanting quick and simple solutions and those who feel the cold chill of accountability for past and future action in their roles.
Making it up as you go along is an anathema to the controllers and quick-fix folks, and those who employ this strategy consciously often have to conceal it with a cloak of plausibly logical actions whereas many use it without being completely aware of it and suppress it under a cloak post-hoc rationalisation. Making it up as you go along is seen as somehow illegitimate, shallow, ill-considered, reckless even. Merchants of mediocrity will try to sell you their flow diagrams and 7 point plans. They will encourage the use of pros and cons lists, planning tasks and simple formulas for success. They push the view that if the plan cannot be articulated in every detail, it has not been “thought through” or is the product of a fuzzy and unsound mind. We all love and draw confidence from a well-thought out plan.
With colleagues Robert Pryor and Tony Borg, we have developed a butterfly model of career development. Imagine a race track in the shape of a figure of 8 on its side that you are continuously driving around like a race track. Each journey around the circuit never exactly repeats any other. Do this for long enough and what results begins to resemble a butterfly and hence the name of the model. Imagine now that the left-hand circle on the track represents all your planned behaviour and the right hand circle of the track represents all the unplanned behaviour.
What it demonstrates is that career development is a continually developing series of planned actions which are impacted by unplanned events which in turn lead to revisions or new plans, which in turn are impacted by the unexpected and so on. The model is slightly more complex because you can circle around for periods in either the planned bit of the circuit or the unplanned bit, and then move unexpectedly into the other realm. This explains why in life we can experience periods of relative calm and predictability, and others that seem to be never ending turbulence. Overall, the point is that there is an ongoing and inevitable relationship between the predictable and the unpredictable, between pattern and surprise and between composition and improvisation.
Making it up as you go along is often called improvisation. Improvisation implies there is a structure around which you can improvise. Improvising without any framework at all simply results in a self-indulgent blast of white noise that achieves nothing other than to alienate all who witness it. There is a saying in jazz circles “improvisation is composition speeded up, and composition is improvisation slowed down.” It implies that improvisation ultimately has rules and structure, but these are loose or fuzzy enough for creativity to be invited in.
Often in jazz, the musicians establish the structure of the piece (“the head”) and then the musicians improvise around that. It is not a bad way of thinking about yourself or your organisation as a beautiful complex composition around which you can improvise.
Why is it some people seem to be able to make it up as they go along, whereas others struggle or are scared of this approach? Part of the answer lies in the concept of life purpose. Those who have a clear sense of life purpose will intuitively act in ways that keeps intact their sense of purpose, and hence purpose becomes the force that drives, directs and limits action. In a sense knowing your purpose is a bit like being able to recognise your essential tune (or core business for an organisation) – it provides the structure and sets the boundaries for improvisation. Purpose is not about goal setting, purpose defines what can become a goal, goals do not define what can become your purpose.
Getting a sense of the bigger pattern, the linkages, the limitations and the opportunities will help to inspire confidence to improvise and will also increase the likelihood that the improvisations are bold, original and creative. In other words successful.

What makes a good leader?

A perennial issue in the workplace is how best to develop trust between leaders and team members. At a Career Development Association of Australia Annual Conference, philosopher Dr Jeff Malpas from the University of Tasmania, made the point that trust is a basic ethical concept that is a pre-requisite for effective management. In a business environment that is highly complex, inter-connected and changeable, decision-making can no longer be the prerogative of the senior echelons of management. There are simply too many decisions to be made every hour for these to be referred up a command chain. If organisations are going to respond effectively to change on an on-going basis, decision-making must be a feature of almost all staff roles. To allow this to happen, it helps if you trust your workforce.

Successful organisations are populated by employees invested with sufficient trust to allow them to make the decisions they need to make. However, this does not mean that these organisations can afford simply to assume their employees will do the right thing. Decision-making is a skill, and decision-making under pressure and conditions of rapid change and uncertainty is difficult task. It is also an ethical skill. How many times has it emerged during ICAC inquiries and court proceedings that at the heart of the problem was a failure to make ethical decisions?

As Malpas points out, it is not simply a matter of saying “right I trust you”, individuals need support in developing an ethical framework in which to make decisions. Leaders need training in ethics not only to assist them in their decision-making but also to assist them in developing the right trust relationships with their employees. Leaders can then be a catalyst for the development of an ethical culture within the organisation. Malpas’ main point as I understood it, is that ethics is at the heart of all human relationships (we cannot be a community and we cannot exchange goods and services if there is no trust for instance).

Perhaps because decision-making, and ethical decision-making can be so complex, there is tendency amongst some Leaders to react against the complexity by trying to increase the amount of control they exert. Classic examples are the imposition of supposed “quality assurance”, “accountability” or worse “compliance” regimes. Using the rhetoric of mutual responsibility, what may be lurking underneath is a lack of trust in staff to do the right thing. This can amount to little more than blame shifting exercises in the event that something goes wrong.

Unfortunately reacting against complexity by trying to close things down to a more controllable simplified world, rarely work in the medium to long term because such a strategy simply ignores the fact that things are complex and continuously changing. Indeed such a strategy may be potentially fatal to the health of the organisation because it encourages a form of corporate blindness where only a limited number of people make decisions using a limited amount of data. When things start to go wrong, and unpredictable things occur, the reaction can often be to ignore the signs and dismiss the troublesome events as turbulence or temporary aberrations.

There has been an increasing interest over the last 15 years in the concept of emergent leadership. This approach does not see the “Leader” as the Grandee who determines the fate of the company or who can control and predict the future. Neither are leaders seen in the terms of classic leadership theory such as traits, styles or as transformers or transactors. So what do Emergent Leaders do? They enable. And they enable by developing a culture that permits others to be innovative and creative. Such leaders trust their staff to make decisions and recognise that the future is uncertain.

This new approach to Leadership places far greater emphasis on trust, uncertainty and complexity, and seems particularly well suited to the uncertain times in which we live. Furthermore empirical evidence from studies investigating this approach appear promising. Donde Plowman and her colleagues at the University of Texas recently found that leaders who are enablers disrupt existing patterns of behaviour, encourage novelty and make sense of the emerging order for others.

For effective leaders and organisations, perhaps the question is not how much can we trust our employees, but rather, can we afford not to trust them?

Mentoring at work: does it work?

There are many different ways in which you can help employees at work. For instance you can be a role model for others, you can sponsor a particular staff member, you can train people, you can coach them, and last (but is it least?) you can mentor them. Mentoring typically involves a more experienced and/or older person providing a supportive relationship for a less experienced and/or younger person. Broadly speaking there are three areas where mentoring has been widely applied: youth; academic and workplace mentoring.

support mentoring

Mentoring is one of those ideas that seem intuitively sensible and worthy of widespread implementation. But how effective is mentoring? Does it lead to any positive outcomes? Anyone who has been involved in mentoring programs will appreciate that they can be time consuming both in terms of the effort put in by the mentor, as well as any training or compliance hurdles that need to be overcome in getting the mentor and mentee together.

There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that mentoring schemes are set up in a moment of enthusiasm, which eventually wanes over time as other matters become priorities, or because the mentor sometimes feels unrewarded, or worse exploited by the arrangement. There is also the concern that mentoring arrangements are seen as cheap alternatives to providing proper induction training or on-going support for people who need it.

Against all of that negativity there are large numbers of stories, many of them quite inspirational about the power of mentoring and particular mentors to effect immense positive changes in individuals who perhaps have failed to respond to other forms of intervention.

The evidence is now in  thanks to a large-scale meta-analysis of all of the mentoring research in the Youth, Educational and Workplace domains. Lillian Eby and her colleagues from the University of Georgia present their findings in the current edition of the Journal of Vocational Behavior. They wanted to check out six key assumptions that mentoring is associated with: 1. positive behavioural outcomes; 2. positive attitudinal outcomes; 3.  positive health-related outcomes; 4. relationship outcomes; 5 positive motivational outcomes; and 6. positive career outcomes.

The researchers found 112 studies over the last 20 years that met their strict criteria of reporting results comparing people who had undergone mentoring with comparable people who had not received the mentoring. (There are a huge number of studies attesting to the value of mentoring that focus only on those that received the mentoring and strictly speaking they are flawed because you cannot be sure that others who did not receive the mentoring do not also show positive change).

There was support for each of the research team’s assumptions – mentoring was related to favourable behavioural, attitudinal, health, interpersonal, motivational and career outcomes. Indeed their results indicated overall that mentoring is often associated with a “wide range” of favourable outcomes for the protégés.

Perhaps most relevant to us, the results suggest that mentors may assist in the skill development and professional networking opportunities for protégés. These are known to be linked to career success in terms of salary, promotions and job offers. They may also provide an informal form of career counselling for protégés.

This all sounds fantastic, however the authors strike two notes of caution. Firstly the positive impact of mentoring was usually only very small, and secondly, as the research stands, there is very little good evidence to show that mentoring is the cause of these outcomes. While the presence of mentoring is a likely reason for these positive outcomes, appeals to the research will not support such a strong conclusion. Mentoring was most successful in workplace and educational settings.

Overall, the message is that if you are offered mentoring at work, take the opportunity because it is more likely to benefit you than harm your career. However if you are an employer looking for a single solution to your career development problems, mentoring may be part of that solution, but it is no panacea.