Life Path Not Career Path

Three years of agile transformation at BMW Group IT have taught me a lot about organizational change and I have summarized it in three principles. But I also learned a lot about myself on this trip. I like change. I want to make a difference and improve the world. I tend towards idealism and I have a dream. I am curious and open. And I don’t like well-trodden career paths, but an indefinite path of life, which is made by walking.

Wanderer, your footprints are
the path, and nothing else;
wanderer, there is no path,
the path is made by walking.
Walking makes the path,
and on glancing back
one sees the path
that will never trod again.
Wanderer, there is no path—
Just steles in the sea.  

Antonio Machado: “Campos de Castilla”, 1917 (Translation: Betty Jean Craige)

The early days in the corporate world were painful. After five years of startup culture with the simplest possible strategy (“doing things!”) and as few rules as possible, I initially felt constricted, overprotected and somehow out of place. It took a while and some conversations with like-minded people until I could make a virtue out of necessity and realized that I prefer to work on the system rather than in the system. This change of structures and conditions towards a new and more humane workplace in the sense of the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership thus became an important part of my life journey. And that is much better than any well-worn career path. I talked about this in more detail with Aniko Willems in this (only German) interview.

Of course, it needs the work in the system as well and it is not a question of criticizing it. It may not always be particularly value-adding and sometimes frustrating, but still this work in the system results in what the organization exists for. And because organizations are hierarchically structured in the vast majority of cases, for many the position on the career ladder has become the yardstick of their success (or they have adopted it without any questioning). There is nothing wrong with that per se, as long as career does not become an end in itself.

Sadly, I also got to know the term “Career Limiting Move” (CLM) within the corporate world. It seems as if there are (not so few) people for whom life in hierarchical organizations has become a kind of chess game. Cleverly chosen moves bring them forward quickly on their career path, while missteps, these CLMs, slow them down. In this logic, CLMs should obviously be avoided as much as possible, words and battles should be chosen wisely, competitors eliminated, suitable allies sought and the next step planned wisely. The organization becomes a chessboard and a battlefield and one’s own rise becomes an end in itself.

In addition to working in the system, you therefore always need to work on the system. I believe that it always takes people who have a different perspective, who look at the system from the outside, who recognize problems and address weaknesses. Not least because of this stance, as an Agile Coach I like to call myself also a court jester, who holds up the mirror to the powerful with a certain fool’s freedom, constructively irritates the system and inspires reflection and rethinking. And in this respect the CLM is good for something after all, namely as a yardstick for this work as court jester and corporate rebel: at least one CLM per week! And with this article I have fulfilled my target for this week …

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