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HR Star Explains How To Cruise The Career S-Curve

The January-February 2011 Harvard Business Review featured an article titled Reinvent Your Business Before It’s Too Late: Watch Out for Those S-Curves.

A Standard S-Curve

Seeing this headline caused my mind to immediately jump to my study of S-curves in graduate school (think of an S-curve (see chart above) as the graphical life of an organization where performance ascends (“replicating and improving”), often rapidly, but later declines (“dying”) due to stagnation, new market entrants, tired management etc.).

On The Curve, Companies “Evolve or Die”

Companies that reinvent themselves are able to jump the curve and maintain their upward trajectory through leadership, new products and services, and yes, even culture (we all know that culture eats strategy for breakfast.)

I next recalled a 1999 Ernst & Young (still management consulting at the time, and while I was studying S-curves) ad campaign slogan of “Evolve or Die.”

And please don’t quote me on this but wasn’t it both Medtronic and HP that reported 90% of income results from products less than one year old?

The reverse of that is where many large cap, global brands have met their demise (anyone need a typewriter ribbon from Smith Corona?).  Change and innovation are so imbedded in business today that the S-curve must be part of both strategy planning and day to day execution.

So, I was just a page or two into the reading when my mind began to create an analogy between my personal job search (just passed the 10 month mark) and my own S-curve.

Preparing For Your Next Win (Upward On Your Personal s-Curve)

I too, like a business, trended upward for years, with aggressive growth, advanced education and certification, new experiences, and high profile challenges and relationships that helped carve and drive my success.

Yet, maybe, just maybe I did not leverage the area under the curve by identifying and preparing for my next win, next gig, and next impactful role.

And now, since my last full time position as senior director of human resources for a Silicon Valley start up (ah, a “mature” start up) ended, it is easier to look back and wonder what I might have done to keep the trend line trending upward on the time and performance axes.


Like obsolete airlines that thought the little upstart guys would never compete on price alone, even in a deregulated environment, I look back and think what if Pan Am had forecasted the impact of Freddie Laker (Laker didn’t last either) or more significantly, Southwest.

Who would have thought that Southwest, master of the $39 fare, would now be a coast to coast US airline.

Or, that tiny Piedmont (yeah, remember them? Huh. No?) would evolve from a regional airline in the Carolinas to an East coast player flying 767s to London, Paris and Frankfurt (Piedmont now acquired by USAir).

So back to me and my career.  Or yours.

Our Careers All Get Stuck

I’m not saying that my 15 years of HR experience was trumped by a new entrant 25 year old.  Not at all and this is not about generational issues at play in business.

I’m saying that professional growth and our need for growth may get stuck at times and consequently, we need to get unstuck.

I fundamentally believe, in my heart of hearts and will argue this with the finest; that what we need for professional growth is positively correlated to what I simply call “the work itself.”

The work itself is what satisfies and engages us to create what Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of flow.  And, you got it – the area under the curve is where we find the work itself.  Here’s a crude drawing to get you thinking of your own S-curve:

Your Career S-Curve

Questions To Ask Yourself About Your Career

What does your career s-Curve look like?  What are you doing now in that area under the curve to create your strategy for success?

How similar will it be to what you are doing now (maybe it will fit the pop definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?).

Or, are you preparing to engage your mind, commitment and energy in another department, another company, or even another field?  What relationships, experiences, challenges etc. will create your starting point?

What does that look like for you – does it involve working for someone else – or yourself?

Is it with a well established global brand or an innovative entrepreneurial start up?

And what will you do for them? Again, go with the work itself.

How Does Your Work Rank On These 5 Elements?

I recommend comparing what you love doing to Hackman and Oldham’s Job Characteristics model – it never fails me. You’ll want to think of your work in the context of:

  1. Skill variety
  2. Task identity
  3. Task significance
  4. Autonomy
  5. Knowledge of results

You can learn more on your own but believe me these five elements will play heavy in your level of satisfaction as you move along the curve.

I know it’s not easy to plan your next big thing when faced with life’s pressures.

For those that have been downsized, optimized, rightsized, or any other euphemism to describe being fired, I have personal experience with the changes that accompany a financial downturn.

Uncoil & Feel A State Of Flow

Yet – after I uncoiled from the fetal position in my home office, and stopped being fixated on the day to day tasks of turning out more lights, minimizing dishwasher usage, eliminating unessential things and services and trying to reduce expenses,

I realized that what I want now is to do more of what I did when that state of flow existed –when it feels like you could do it forever.

For me, that’s when I have been challenged to keep many balls in the air and to throw even more balls higher — not letting any of them touch the ground was exhilarating.

I send a shoutout to the great Ron Gribbins, Ph.D., department chair and head of the HR program at Washington University in St. Louis.  Without his excellence in teaching S-curves and so much more, I would be  much less evolved.

This posting was written by Lisa Youngdahl, MA, SPHR. She is an experienced Human Relations (HR) pro who is looking for her next career S-curve upswing and may be contacted at [email protected] or through Lisa’s LinkedIn Profile.