Lining up a successful workforce

Written by: Jessica Mullinger is director of interim management at Solace in Business
Published on: 1 Dec 2022

Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis’ concept of the ‘squiggly career’ has been slowly seeping into my consciousness for more than a year now. At first, it was brief mentions on social media and fleeting comments in passing, but now it is an insistent murmuring, which is gathering pace and relevance daily.

Tupper and Ellis’s best seller The Squiggly Career, features a squiggly line illustration that immediately takes me back to the late 90s, when I spent some time researching the change in women’s lives over recent decades, with a small research team, as part of a gender studies module at university.

Being the 90s our access to the internet was limited, so we spent months eating Greggs sausage rolls, drinking cheap coffee and reading, what felt like, hundreds of books.  We photocopied thousands of pages (sorry trees) and wore out several packs of highlighter pens. When we finally came together to try to make sense of our research, we used a whiteboard to map out our findings. When we stepped back to look at what we’d created, it was essentially a huge, confusing squiggle, full of crossroads, options, decisions, and choices – a messy depiction of the lives of modern women.

This was in stark contrast to the lives of women several decades earlier, which were more clearly mapped out and linear. To me, just looking at the squiggle we had created made me feel exhausted, but others in the team felt empowered and excited by the opportunities and possibilities ahead.

The concept of the squiggly career is similar in that Tupper and Ellis believe careers should (and will) move away from the traditional linear approach; taking one career step at a time and in one direction. The move will be towards a ‘squigglier’ approach, which will see learning and development reimagined, as individuals take control of their own learning and careers take many turns in different directions, without the constricts of the traditional expectation of the upwards trajectory. It is the concept of the increasing choice and possibilities that this brings, and how different people react to this, that has piqued my interest in the subject.

My own career is far from squiggly (if you ignore the two years spent on the shopfloor at Harvey Nichols in the early noughties), which is no surprise, given my visceral response – exhaustion – to the squiggly line we had discovered years earlier. I am not a person for whom excessive career choice, options and possibilities elicit feelings of energy and excitement, but as Tupper and Ellis state ‘the legacy of the ladder is strong’.  Until very recently, workers have been conditioned to believe the ladder is the only option.

So, what has changed? Why are we now seeing more workers give themselves permission to take on a squiggly career? Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek’s work on millennials in the workplace might provide some of the answers here. According to Sinek, as we’ve seen more millennials enter the workplace, corporations have needed to build their understanding of the evolving workforce and how to create a corporate environment where they can thrive. He believes millennials can be hard wired to expect instant gratification and are less likely to have experienced the fulfillment you get from working hard at something over a long period of time. 

Sinek believes job satisfaction and strength of human interaction are two things you cannot achieve quickly, and he advises creating a working culture that promotes longer-term reward and encourages human interaction. But as he quite rightly states, there’s no quick fix here and it is a ‘slow, meandering, uncomfortable and messy process’.

This need for instant gratification may well attract certain parts of the workforce to a squiggly career. In Tupper and Ellis’ view the traditional career ladder holds people back, if they’re not quite ready for the next rung of the ladder or if the next move doesn’t appeal. In contrast the squiggly career is full of instant possibilities as individuals are encouraged to ‘curate their own learning’ and become less reliant on a training team or a corporation. They take back control and are encouraged to explore possibilities and follow their dreams.

You might think providing workers with this opportunity for instant gratification goes against the advice of Sinek, who very clearly believes that we should be creating corporate environments which encourage millennials to appreciate longer-term goals. However, the squiggly career, as well as providing instant gratification, in self-directed learning, can also offer longer term benefits, for both individuals and organisations, in recruitment and retention terms.

Tupper and Ellis believe that continually exploring career possibilities increases resilience and creates more connections. A squiggly career approach also encourages individuals and organisations to see how skills can be used in new ways and identify skills that will be useful for the future. Given the rate at which skills are becoming obsolete in today’s workforce, identifying new skills is a critical facet of recruitment and retention. A squiggly career does not necessarily have to be in different industries or companies, it can also be different roles and directions within one company. As Ellis states in a 2021 Ted Talk, ‘If we don’t lose the ladder, we will lose people’.

At a time when the local government sector is experiencing challenges in attracting and retaining talent it may be worth considering your ‘ladder legacy’ and whether it would benefit your organisation and your employees to encourage squiggly careers.

As a first step you may need to redefine your corporate relationship with learning at work. Give permission and time for self-exploration and self-directed learning. Encourage learning in all situations and at all levels of the organisation. As Tupper and Ellis state: ‘There’s no monopoly on wisdom’. Provide opportunities for learning on a wide range of topics both relevant to work and less so.

This week, for example, is the annual learning event at Essex CC and the team have pulled together a brilliant programme of sessions, ranging from role-related topics like ‘Increasing psychological safety in hybrid teams’ and ‘Creating an experimental culture’ to sessions like ‘Drawing for the terrified’, ‘Basic Italian language skills’ and ‘Keeping children safe on socials’. This programme clearly encourages workers to learn in a more holistic sense and to follow their dreams and redefine their aspirations outside of ‘the ladder’.

Essex CC chief executive – and Solace chair – Gavin Jones, has kindly allowed a number of external partners to access the learning event this week and I am very pleased to report that I am taking steps towards breaking down my personal ‘ladder legacy’. I have booked to attend drawing for the terrified and I’m hopeful that by the time this article is published, I will be able to order a coffee in Italian.

I have to say, I’m quite looking forward to introducing a little squiggle into my life. 

Jessica Mullinger is director of interim management at Solace in Business