Discussion with "The Episodic Career" Author, Farai Chideya

Fawn Fitter

To Engage Employees, Set Them Free

sap_Q216_digital_double_thinkers_images2During her 25 years as a journalist, college instructor, author, speaker, and host of radio and television political commentary programs, Farai Chideya has reinvented her career numerous times. Her multifaceted work history and the job experiences of people she has met along the way inspired her latest book, The Episodic Career: How to Thrive at Work in the Age of Disruption (Atria, 2016). The book examines how individuals can prepare for, respond to, and evolve in a work environment that’s changing too fast to predict.

We asked Chideya about how continuous change is keeping employees at all levels constantly on their toes and how business leaders can engage their teams in a “fend for yourself” era.

Q: In a nutshell, how is the age of digital disruption transforming employment?

Farai Chideya: Everyone, not just high-level managers, now needs to follow news in their industry for a basic understanding of how macroeconomic trends like automation and globalization are affecting it. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the average tenure at a job in the United States is just 4.5 years. We feel more vulnerable as we watch companies and even entire industries collapse. My own field, journalism, is a case in point. A census by the American Society of News Editors and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University shows the number of full-time journalists at daily newspapers in the United States dropped 40% between 2007 and 2015.

People don’t just hop into a field at a low level and ride it up like an escalator anymore. Today, we have episodic careers. You may tap into different skill sets at different times, have more than one micro-career simultaneously, or not have a traditional career path at all. It’s also no longer enough to do your job well. You also have to market yourself constantly: telling other people you’ve done the job, finding out what skills will let you do your job in the future, acquiring those skills, and positioning yourself to do your job five years from now, assuming your job still exists in five years.

Q: Do business leaders and frontline managers understand the pressure this puts on employees?

Chideya: I don’t think so, and we need to fix that. Managers see employees using all the online and offline tools that keep you networked, let you manage your contacts and personal reputation, keep people up to date on what you’re doing, and help you expand your skill set. And they think employees are trying to get away with something—that employees are slacking off or looking for a new job. If you’re the boss, you need to understand that your employees are doing those things because they’re necessary.

Q: So how do managers help employees succeed and build their careers when people are expected to acquire new skills nonstop, take on new responsibilities with little warning, and switch gears repeatedly?

Chideya: Employees know their career development is their own responsibility, but constantly moving from one role to the next and drawing on different sets of skills can make it hard for them to identify where they need to focus. Employers don’t want to invest in training employees who might take their new skills to a competitor, but employees would be less likely to leave if employers showed a willingness to invest in them.

Managers can break this vicious cycle by identifying the skills their company will need in the future and steering employees toward programs to help them acquire those skills, whether that’s company-specific training, free educational resources like Khan Academy, or online and low-residency university degree programs.

Beyond that, though, we need to start making structural reforms, so that the education system and society as a whole are organized to support these new career realities. Because there’s only so much that individuals—whether employees, their managers, or top executives—can do about the factors currently influencing the workplace.

Q: Suppose I think I’m in a stable position. How should I be thinking about the future?

Chideya: You may think that your job is stable, but if things around you are changing, your situation is also changing. When your company or industry is in flux, a lot of anxiety or even anger is going to come at you from the people around you.

Your role, whether you are a rank-and-file employee or a manager, and especially if you are an executive, is to remain the rock in the middle of the river and not let other people’s anxiety provoke you. That requires you to manage a lot of stress, both your own stress and that of other people’s.

One key section of my book can help you determine four key attributes by which to navigate your career path at any stage: whether you’re a risk-taker or more cautious; whether you get your sense of accomplishment from simply doing your job well or want your work to have high social impact, too; whether you’re happier innovating or executing; and whether you prefer to make decisions solo or as part of a team. When you combine that self-knowledge with awareness of what’s happening in the wider business world, you’ll see better around corners. You’ll begin to anticipate how your field is changing and how you and your employees need to change to keep up with it. D!

Fawn Fitter

About Fawn Fitter

Fawn Fitter is based in San Francisco, where she writes about the spots where business and technology intersect.