Life Path Not Career Path

Three years of agile trans­for­ma­tion at BMW Group IT have taught me a lot about orga­ni­za­tion­al change and I have sum­ma­rized it in three prin­ci­ples. But I also learned a lot about myself on this trip. I like change. I want to make a dif­fer­ence and improve the world. I tend towards ide­al­ism and I have a dream. I am curi­ous and open. And I don’t like well-trod­den career paths, but an indef­i­nite path of life, which is made by walking.

Wan­der­er, your foot­prints are
the path, and noth­ing else;
wan­der­er, there is no path,
the path is made by walk­ing.
Walk­ing makes the path,
and on glanc­ing back
one sees the path
that will nev­er trod again.
Wan­der­er, there is no path—
Just ste­les in the sea. 

Anto­nio Macha­do: “Cam­pos de Castil­la”, 1917 (Trans­la­tion: Bet­ty Jean Craige)

The ear­ly days in the cor­po­rate world were painful. After five years of start­up cul­ture with the sim­plest pos­si­ble strat­e­gy (“doing things!”) and as few rules as pos­si­ble, I ini­tial­ly felt con­strict­ed, over­pro­tect­ed and some­how out of place. It took a while and some con­ver­sa­tions with like-mind­ed peo­ple until I could make a virtue out of neces­si­ty and real­ized that I pre­fer to work on the sys­tem rather than in the sys­tem. This change of struc­tures and con­di­tions towards a new and more humane work­place in the sense of the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship thus became an impor­tant part of my life jour­ney. And that is much bet­ter than any well-worn career path. I talked about this in more detail with Aniko Willems in this (only Ger­man) interview.

Of course, it needs the work in the sys­tem as well and it is not a ques­tion of crit­i­ciz­ing it. It may not always be par­tic­u­lar­ly val­ue-adding and some­times frus­trat­ing, but still this work in the sys­tem results in what the orga­ni­za­tion exists for. And because orga­ni­za­tions are hier­ar­chi­cal­ly struc­tured in the vast major­i­ty of cas­es, for many the posi­tion on the career lad­der has become the yard­stick of their suc­cess (or they have adopt­ed it with­out any ques­tion­ing). There is noth­ing wrong with that per se, as long as career does not become an end in itself.

Sad­ly, I also got to know the term “Career Lim­it­ing Move” (CLM) with­in the cor­po­rate world. It seems as if there are (not so few) peo­ple for whom life in hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions has become a kind of chess game. Clev­er­ly cho­sen moves bring them for­ward quick­ly on their career path, while mis­steps, these CLMs, slow them down. In this log­ic, CLMs should obvi­ous­ly be avoid­ed as much as pos­si­ble, words and bat­tles should be cho­sen wise­ly, com­peti­tors elim­i­nat­ed, suit­able allies sought and the next step planned wise­ly. The orga­ni­za­tion becomes a chess­board and a bat­tle­field and one’s own rise becomes an end in itself.

In addi­tion to work­ing in the sys­tem, you there­fore always need to work on the sys­tem. I believe that it always takes peo­ple who have a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, who look at the sys­tem from the out­side, who rec­og­nize prob­lems and address weak­ness­es. Not least because of this stance, as an Agile Coach I like to call myself also a court jester, who holds up the mir­ror to the pow­er­ful with a cer­tain fool’s free­dom, con­struc­tive­ly irri­tates the sys­tem and inspires reflec­tion and rethink­ing. And in this respect the CLM is good for some­thing after all, name­ly as a yard­stick for this work as court jester and cor­po­rate rebel: at least one CLM per week! And with this arti­cle I have ful­filled my tar­get for this week …

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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