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The New Career Ladder - Mindset vs Skill Set and the Importance of Emotional Intelligence

September 19, 2019


With the rise of complex organisational structures and the need for organisations to be increasingly agile, the concept of a career ladder is rapidly dying. The idea of a career for life has now been replaced by a mindset of a "career for me." The career path that started by joining a business at an entry-level job and staying for 20 years until you hit senior management is long gone.

The 1980s and onward have seen a rise in the importance of developing career management skills, as well as a change in the psychological contract. As millennials have entered the workplace, the idea of a self-managed career progression has picked up pace. This shift is far from the rung by rung concept of the historic career ladder and aligns itself much more with dynamic shifts across and between organisations and roles. Sarah Liu, founder of The Dream Collective and Gemini3, describes it as “lateral, personal, dynamic, multi-dimensional.”

We can’t blame it all on the millennials however - globalisation, the rise of technology, and a more diverse workforce have all played its part too.

Oxford University predicts that 47% of jobs will disappear in the next 25 years. Other research suggests that potentially 65% of today’s schoolchildren will take up jobs that don’t currently exist - meaning the need for individual agility is becoming key to remaining competitive in the world of work.

Usurping "career ladder" and "choosing a career" are a range of replacement concepts which are being heavily researched, such as employability, career resilience, and career competencies. As the world of employment becomes more unpredictable, a different mindset is required. So, employers are now shifting their recruitment processes to focus on "mindset" much as and sometimes more than skill set (attitude is key). The theory is that you can learn skills but it is harder to adapt mindset.

So, how does Emotional Intelligence (EI) come into this?

At the heart of Emotional Intelligence is emotional resilience, the root of which lies in our attitudes and self-awareness. The role of EI can be best seen through the lens of career resilience as defined here:

Career Resilience is a person’s mindset and capacity to effectively manage their energy in the workplace - to be self-confident and choose the best course of action, bounce back from stressful situations, and to learn and adapt positively to adversity, pressure, and change

So, career resilience is about being able to respond effectively and positively to changing work circumstances and to have the self-confidence and willingness to take risks (Schreuder and Coetzee, 2011). This requires attributes such as adaptability, flexibility, and a host of other mindset related attributes that make someone not only able to "bounce back" but also to learn and move forward (Bezuidenhout, 2011). All attributes which we know to be dominant in people with high EI. In short, personal and career resilience are outcomes of being emotionally intelligent.

What do we mean by EI? EI in broad terms is a person’s attitude that largely influences their feelings, thoughts, and, in turn, behaviours. It is the degree to which a person is able to manage their personality and get the most from themselves. For example, deploying your full intellectual potential under pressure requires effective emotion regulation. This ability is dynamic and can change in the moment, but more importantly, can be developed over time.

Here are some obvious links we can make in connection with EI and career resilience through research we have carried out into employability. We know that people high in EI have the ability to:

  • Set goals, as well as be focused and emotionally resilient – creating a personal belief system that pushes through to achieve outcomes

  • Create effective relationships that share responsibility whilst being personally fully accountable

  • Be flexible to changing conditions and open to new possibilities and others’ ideas and approaches

  • Be authentic and connect with others which contributes significantly to a climate of mutual trust and understanding and produces conditions for creativity, pro-activity, and high energy team achievement

  • Effectively challenge others and make interventions that improve situations

  • Be sensitive and demonstrate empathy to build a strong rapport and respond to important underlying needs and motivations in not only them, but others too

These are just a few of the positive outcomes that developing EI offers – all linking to behaviours that employers crave, therefore making an individual more employable as well as more agile and resilient in the VUCA employment market. Of course, people do need career related skills such as CV writing, information gathering, and interview skills, and they need to build job-related experience and skills, but emotional intelligence should undoubtedly be at the core of developing an effective workforce for the future.

EI in business

Bill Davies Bill Davies is a Principal Consultant at PSI Talent Management International. He has worked in coaching, leadership development and personal development for over 30 years. He has a number of strings to his bow including being a trained trainer, having management experience, lecturing at the University of the West of England, leading a business development unit, and writing career development material.