Modern Work

“Projects” Are the New Career Ladder. Here’s How You Can Benefit

person sitting on top of a stack of breif cases as papers, ladder and flowers erupt from the top case. this illustrates how projects are the new career ladder

Illustration: Virginia Gabrielli

If you could base your career path on your interests and skills, why wouldn’t you?

Decades ago, the workforce was fairly stable. Employers could count on their employees staying for the long haul and employees could count on a job with benefits and a pension.

Then came globalization, technological innovation and the gig economy.

Now it’s common for organizations to hire more workers when they need them and let them go when things are slow. Today’s savvy workers know to keep an eye on bigger trends and plot ways to deepen or broaden their skill sets, both for their current job and for future roles. It’s an entrepreneurial approach to work. 

After all, there’s no longer a “standard” career.

Flexibility is the new standard, for both workers and employers. And a new way to advance the career ladder has emerged: projects. Projects are short-term initiatives with specific goals and metrics. They’re an ideal way for workers to shape their careers and explore new interests.

Projects-based work has long been associated with freelancers, consultants and contract work. But it’s increasingly finding its way into more permanent roles and employee/employer relationships. This doesn’t redefine employees as contract workers, but it does reflect a change in our attitude towards work and the career ladder.

The Project-Based Career Ladder  

This new approach puts the focus on adaptability or agility.

Agility refers to “an organization’s ability to alter its direction or adjust to operate successfully,” according to leadership consultant Ryan Gottfredson. “An agile organization requires its workforce to swiftly adapt to the changing needs of customers, employees and the marketplace.”

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman talked about his agile, project-based hiring approach in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, explaining that he hires employees on a four-year “tour of duty,” with a check in after two years. If the employee made positive impact in their role during those two to four years, they’d be given another “tour of duty” and set of responsibilities. He says that time period “gives employer and employee a clear basis for working together. Both sides agree in advance on the purpose of the relationship, the expected benefits for each, and a planned end.” 

Marti Konstant coined “Agile Careerist” to describe employees who took advantage of approaches like Hoffman’s. Konstant, a former Silicon Valley executive turned career growth analyst and author, had looked at the rapid pace of change and realized the quick adapters were thriving.

Konstant was inspired by Newton’s Law of Motion. Employees usually fall into two camps when faced with a changing work landscape, according to Konstant. They either “stay in motion and respond to change” or view their current job as the goal.

The terminology is borrowed from software developers. “Agile” describes the way developers create a plan, break it into segments, assign responsibility for certain segments and constantly assess, reassess, and course correct.

Taking an agile approach to your career ladder creates focus, self-reflection, and the opportunity to build a strong, self-directed career. 

According to Konstant, this approach works within a variety of organizations, whether a flat, startup-style organization or a traditional corporation with hierarchies. “Think of your work as evolving job roles. Consider two-to-three-year projects capable of building on your incremental knowledge. Harness the enthusiasm of a fresh start, master the job, and build new competencies.” 

How to Handle Job Assessments Geared Toward Projects

Without a traditional career path, workers must take charge of their careers with regular self-assessments. But how do managers and teams evaluate this kind of professional development? 

The team at Buffer has an in-house framework for such assessments. They built this evaluative framework by asking, “Is it possible to grow horizontally rather than vertically?” 

Buffer has experimented with multiple management styles over the years, including abolishing most of their management roles. Team leads at Buffer created task forces, cognizant of limited opportunities to advance into traditional management, Any employee could create a task force and could be a member of multiple ones. 

To provide opportunities for evaluation and so employees can grow, the company holds weekly assessments. Questions like “What went well?” and “Where is there room for improvement?” provide employees with opportunities for dependable check ins and course correction.  

Regular feedback makes for an environment of ongoing learning that’s more consistent with today’s world. Feedback can come from mentors, colleagues and leaders in your organization. If there is no effective feedback loop in place, it may fall to the employee to create one for themselves, through with regular self-reflection as well as by soliciting feedback from others. 

Zappos is another company that offers a non-traditional approach to work. The e-commerce company is organized as a decentralized “holacracy,” in contrast to a traditional hierarchy. Employees can earn “badges” for accomplishments and grow into different roles depending on their interests. 

John Bunch, the lead organizational designer and technical adviser to CEO Tony Hsieh describes the Zappos model as more “job jungle gym” rather than “job ladder.”

The Company of You 

There are tremendous benefits to managing your career with a project-based focus. A major advantage is that it can keep you engaged. Each completed project can bring a distinct sense of satisfaction. If you find that your interest is waning, figure out if you’re ready for a bigger or more challenging project, or if you need a more substantive change—perhaps even jumping to another organization or industry. If you’ve been able to craft a reputation around your project work, you should be able to use your project experience to translate your skill sets into other roles and industries.

That’s exactly what Rise co-founder and CEO Vivian Chen did. Chen went from brand manager at L’Oreal to become a skincare entrepreneur, and finally ended up running a recruitment platform that “connects top-performing women with innovative companies to take on projects that fit [their] skill set and lifestyle.”

How did she make such a shift? Chen said she learned how to create experiences for millennial women while at L’Oreal and learned about talent recruitment in Silicon Valley. The skills may seem disconnected on the surface, but they made sense when she combined them to found Rise. 

In today’s world, both employees and employers want flexibility and engagement. The technology is there to support non-traditional work arrangements. The new career ladder has the power to fulfill changing interests and needs. Will you embrace it?

June 17, 2020