Not everyone wants to stand out from the crowd – and that’s ok

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Here’s a truth people rarely acknowledge: not everyone can be, or even wants to be, a leader.

On top of that, being part of the pack doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t stand out from it.

This doesn’t meet the definition of ‘success’ peddled by most career coaches and motivational speakers. Their definition reflects a society that is increasingly driven by the idea of ‘reaching for the moon’ – stretching yourself as far as you can in pursuit of a spot at the top of the career ladder.

Indeed, if you look at the market for business books, you get the impression that becoming a leader is all people aspire to in their careers, but the research just doesn’t back that up.

Progression isn’t for everyone

A few years ago, CareerBuilder and Harris Poll undertook a survey of US workers to determine what proportion wanted to become a leader. Just 34% said they wanted to, and most of those wanted to stop at the middle management level. Only 7% were interested in director-level roles. When asked why they didn’t aspire to be a leader, 52% said that they were happy at their current level.

But the pressure to keep on developing, to continuously move onwards and upwards, is hard to escape. The rate of change in the workplace, the online tools we use and the ongoing aftershocks of the financial crisis have created an ultra-competitive working culture in which it seems everyone is expected to continuously strive for improvement.

In his book Stand Firm, psychology professor Svend Brinkmann writes that people in the modern workplace are urged to be ‘always on’ and always looking for the next opportunity: “Standing still is the ultimate sin. If you stand still while everyone else is moving forwards, you fall behind. Doing so these days is tantamount to going backwards.”

For Brinkmann, this behaviour is counterproductive and potentially damaging, encouraging burn-out and increasing anxiety: “In an accelerating culture, we’re supposed to do more, do it better and do it for longer, with scant regard for the content or the meaning of what we’re doing. Self-development has become an end in itself.”

Philosopher Alain de Botton says something similar in his book Status Anxiety: “With most businesses shaped like pyramids, in which a wide base of employees gives way to a narrow tip of managers, the question of who will be rewarded – and who left behind – typically develops into one of the most oppressive of the workplace.”

The career motorway

The phrase ‘career ladder’, which suggests that every move you make must be a step up or down, rather than sideways, doesn’t really represent how people actually progress in their careers. In fact, your career is more like driving on a motorway: you may want to drive in the fast lane and overtake everyone else, but you may also find that, eventually, moving across into a slower lane suits you better.

So it’s about time we redefined what ‘success’ actually means. A third of respondents to the CareerBuilder survey shunned leadership roles due to a lack of work-life balance. And a 2016 Deloitte survey of millennials found having a good work-life balance was the top priority when assessing a potential job, followed by progression opportunities. Remote working and flexible hours came third. Fourth came ‘A sense of meaning in my work’, and tellingly most of the other answers were variations on that theme: ‘The impact it has on society’, ‘The quality of products and services’, ‘A strong sense of purpose’, and so on.

What do you really want?

We often don’t stop to assess what we actually want out of our careers. Take AAT Past President and licensed member Henry Cooper, who spent time working on a rapid growth plan for his practice, only for a career coach to point out to him that it wasn’t what he actually wanted.

“That was a real eye-opener for me,” Cooper says. “The coach was from a sales background, so I was expecting him to give me stick for not being ambitious enough. But he had a strong understanding of what my needs were.” The experience transformed Cooper’s  definition of success into something more personal, he explains: “It’s all about knowing what your needs are and what your end game is, and finding a different way to get there.”

Another AAT member, Alan J, spends half his working hours doing pro bono work. Having overcome several hardships in his life, including a devastating car accident in which he lost the use of his legs, Alan feels it is important to give something back. “I’m on borrowed time. I don’t take myself too seriously,” he says. “When you have something happen to you, you realise it’s not just about you as an individual. If I can help someone as I have been helped, I’m happy.”

For Alan, using his skills to help others is a key part of what defines success for him. And he’s not alone. I speak to a lot of AAT members about their careers, and the vast majority are motivated by doing something fulfilling, from the single mother who wanted to give her children something to strive for to the Syrian refugee applying his accounting skills at a charity providing aid.

Natasha Penny has two reasons to get out of bed in the morning: helping people grow their businesses, and showing her daughter that it’s possible to have a fulfilling and balanced career. “It’s always a balancing act, especially as a woman, and I think I’ve set an example of what you can achieve, and that you can have both. I’ve been able to have a good family life and a good career,” she says.

So make a list of all the things you want out of a job, and write them in order of priority. The result might surprise you.

Four lessons

I’ll conclude with a personal anecdote. From a very young age, I knew what I wanted to do with my life (I wanted to be an author) and threw myself into pursuing that goal. As I got older, my career expectations became more realistic; by my mid-teens, my heart was set on becoming a journalist.

Early in my career, I chased rapid career progression, because I felt I was supposed to. I worked through lunch and stayed late most nights, and I did step up the ladder very quickly. But I also took on too much too fast, and burned out. It got so bad that I lost my love for the work that I’d been passionate about since I’d learned how to write.

I made a step out of journalism and into digital product development and social media management. A couple of years later, I returned to journalism, older and wiser, with my passion renewed. That experience taught me a lot about myself and how I should approach my career.

It governs my decision-making today. The following lessons may be useful for you too. First, care less about other people (without being a jerk). It’s easy to get caught up in what you think other people’s perceptions are but, if other people work all hours and never switch off, it doesn’t mean you have to, as long as you do your work and do it well.

I guarantee those people don’t give you as much thought as you think they do. Second, if your current role is eroding what made you passionate about your career, do something about it. What’s the reason for that loss of passion? Your boss? The work itself?

Are you spending too much time at work? All of those things are fixable. If you can make a change within your current role, great.

Otherwise, it may be time to find a new job. Third, a sideways move can be as fulfilling as a vertical one. Making a move into a different role at the same level could expose you to fresh challenges and experiences that will prepare you better for the next rung of the ladder – if you want to take another step up.

Fourth, don’t move for the sake of it. If you enjoy your work and are happy with your work-life balance, why move into a different role? If the idea of taking on more responsibility excites you, go for it. But, if you’re saying yes because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do, maybe it’s not the right move for you.

So perhaps a leadership role is in your future and perhaps it isn’t. What matters is that your choices match your priorities. The secret is knowing what those priorities are.

This article appeared in Spring/Summer issue of 20 magazine.

Mark Rowland is a journalist and former editor of Accounting Technician and 20 magazine.

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