My career path has been an unusual one. I started as a secretary on Wall Street, worked my way up in my firm’s investment banking group, and then stepped back to become an equity research analyst. Eight years later, I quit that job to produce a TV show and write a children’s book, but I ended up blogging about work/life issues and cofounding a hedge fund backed by a man I’d met at church. It’s not what you’d call a traditional corporate trajectory. But perhaps that’s the new normal. In the United States and many other developed, capitalist countries, the idea of a “company man” (or woman) with a job for life has long been outdated. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median job tenure for American workers age 25 or older has held steady at about five years since 1983, and for men it has slightly declined. Baby boomers born from 1957 through 1964 held 11 jobs, on average, between ages 18 and 44, says another BLS report. And studies tracking long-term employment from 1976 to 2006 paint a similar picture: The percentages of people who have been with their companies at least 10 and at least 20 years have fallen substantially.
Career change isn’t as easily documented, because it’s harder to define than a job switch. But many economists and sociologists think that these bigger shifts are becoming more common, and case studies to support that hypothesis abound. Consider Martin Crampton, a former research scientist and math teacher from Australia. He parlayed a stint as a developer and demo specialist for a software company in Melbourne into a decade-long marketing career, first at the software firm and then at two multinational manufacturing companies (Bic and Stihl), before starting his own consultancy. In 1993 he leapt into another profession and, with his partner, created Australia’s first national real estate portal (before Realtor.com). Crampton later sold that business and started another one that focused on online services. He currently works on ventures involving franchised data and social media.
Then there’s Liz Brown, once a hard-charging law firm partner who left Fish & Richardson to become executive director of an angel investment network and a professor; Alex McClung, whose 23-year career has spanned 15 diverse roles at six different health care companies; and Heather Coughlin, who started her career in equity sales at Goldman Sachs, helped it launch a third-party research subsidiary, and is now CEO of a mother-and-baby support, education, and retail chain. It’s hard to make sense of seemingly wanton—yet ultimately rewarding—career choices like those, until you consider the theories of the man I met in church: Clayton M. Christensen. As HBR readers well know, Christensen is the father of disruptive innovation —the idea that the most successful innovations are those that create new markets and value networks, thereby upending existing ones. Volumes of research and evidence show how disruptive thinking improves the odds of success for products, companies, even countries. Our investment fund focuses on disruptive stocks, and it has outperformed relevant indices by a sizable margin over the past decade.
I believe that disruption can also work on a personal level, not just for entrepreneurs who launch disruptive companies but for people who work within and move between organizations. Zigzagging career paths may be common now, but the people who zigzag best don’t do it randomly.
Not everyone has to abandon the traditional path, of course. Certainly if you’re working toward an ambitious and potentially achievable goal, such as managing a division at your firm or winning a C-suite job in your industry, disruption is unnecessary. You’re pursuing what Christensen calls sustaining innovation:when a company gets better at what it’s already doing and provides more value to existing customers. But if as an individual you’ve reached a plateau or you suspect you won’t be happy at the top rung of the ladder you’re climbing, you should disrupt yourself for the same reasons that companies must. First and foremost, you need to head off the competition. As you continue to improve along the dimensions of performance that the employment market has historically valued, you risk overshooting demands. What you do reliably, if not brilliantly well, can be done just as effectively by many peers—and perhaps more swiftly and affordably by up-and-comers. Second, consider the greater rewards that disruption may bring. It’s true that disruptive innovation in business tends to start out as a low-cost alternative to existing products or services, and of course you don’t want to embrace a career strategy that reduces your own price point. But when you disrupt yourself, you vector to a new set of metrics. In some cases, you might initially take a pay cut in return for a steeper trajectory; after all, the endgame of disruption is higher demand for what you produce. In other cases, you might even boost your pay while still undercutting the competition in your new role, organization, or industry. Remember, too, that when it comes to personal disruption, compensation is not just financial. Psychological and social factors also matter.
Four Principles of Self-Disruption
As someone steeped in disruptive innovation, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how it applies to careers and discussing it with people whose peripatetic yet satisfying paths resemble my own. We all seem to follow four rules, loosely based on those that Christensen set out for businesses.
1. Target a need that can be met more effectively.
A core principle of disruptive innovation is that customers control resource allocation and that they don’t buy products but instead “hire” them to fulfill a need. Disrupters look for needs that aren’t being met well. They play in markets where no one else is or wants to be. A classic example is Salesforce.com: A simple, inexpensive, cloud-based system—initially intended to service small and medium-size businesses—is now disrupting the leading providers of customer resource management software. Martin Crampton’s real estate portal was also a disruptive venture. But his personal disruption started well before that launch, when he realized that marketing strategy, not development and sales, drives usage of software products. He seized the opportunity, thereby positioning himself for a series of big marketing jobs before his next disruptive move. Alex McClung targeted his own industry’s need for people who could move fluidly across functional borders, such as from science to finance and logistics to regulation. Then he sought roles in a variety of health care organizations, ranging from biotech start-up to Fortune500 pharmaceutical, that would help him develop those skills.
And there’s Heather Coughlin’s story of giving up an equity-sales VP position at Goldman Sachs to help launch Hudson Street, an independently operated subsidiary offering investment research to clients. The group was formed partly as a response to court settlements requiring that salespeople in big banks rely on more than just their in-house analysts’ reports. Coughlin got in on the ground floor not only because she thought demand for that service would grow—which it did—but also because she knew that the fledgling group needed someone with her deep experience to serve customers. “Being cognizant of the world around me and rolling the tape forward was critical,” she explains. “I watched two downturns and lots of layoffs, and swore that I would always try to be one step ahead.” Many colleagues thought she was crazy to leave her comfortable perch for an amorphous role—and to let her pay and status take a hit. But the operating skills she built in helping to launch and run Hudson Street are what propelled her into a business development job—and ultimately the CEO’s seat—at Isis Parenting.
2. Identify your disruptive strengths.
When disruptive companies identify unmet needs, they make sure those needs match their distinctive strengths. They realize that market risk (trying and potentially failing at something new) is better than competitive risk (competing against entrenched, established players). A textbook example comes from the Mexican wireless telephony provider América Móvil. Instead of going head-to-head with the wire-line incumbent, it went after the more than 80% of the population who wanted to communicate but couldn’t afford a landline.
Zigzagging career paths may be common now, but the people who zigzag best don’t do it randomly.
As you look to disrupt yourself, don’t think just about what you do well—think about what you do well that most others can’t. Those are your disruptive strengths. For example, I was a good financial analyst, but plenty of folks can build models. What people have said they value most about me is what psychologist Howard Gardner calls “searchlight intelligence”: the ability to discern connections across spheres and see opportunities for cross-pollination. Crampton was a good developer, but more notably he was a standout marketer in a world that required cross-functional fluency. Coughlin was successful at sales but exceptional at bringing customer focus to a small, entrepreneurial business.
Designer and strategist Adam Richardson discovered his disruptive strength early. In the 1990s, working at Sun Microsystems in his first job as an industrial designer, he realized that firsthand knowledge of customers’ needs was missing from many designers’ tool kits. He, by contrast, wasn’t the strongest stylist but was enthralled with market research and good at capturing it. (Consider that at age 6 he was sketching designs for cars; by age 9, he was surveying neighbors about their driving habits and measuring their car interiors.)
“I’m a good listener, and I like finding patterns in chaotic qualitative data,” he explains. He looked for a graduate program to help him hone those skills, but because popular ones like IIT, in Illinois, and Stanford’s Graduate School of Design didn’t exist then, he ended up cobbling together a course for himself via the University of Chicago’s self-directed Master of Arts Program in the Humanities. He veered from the traditional industrial design path to study anthropology, ethnography, sociology, cultural theory, and art history—disciplines that are now the bedrock of his work that blends design with customer insights and product strategy.
Consider also Gregory Sorensen, who resigned his positions as codirector of Massachusetts General Hospital’s biomedical imaging center and as a professor of radiology and health sciences at Harvard Medical School to become CEO of Siemens Healthcare North America. Sorensen was well established in his medical and academic career when he discovered that his particular strengths matched up well with the needs of Siemens. Sorensen wasn’t a salesman or a seasoned business executive, but he was a respected doctor who had deep knowledge of health care equipment and understood how to manage an organization. A few colleagues at Harvard and Mass General questioned his decision, but Sorensen embraced the disruption. He realized it would allow him to use his distinctive skills in a new, potentially more rewarding way.
3. Step back (or sideways) in order to grow.
Just as a company’s survival depends on revenue growth, an individual’s well-being depends on learning and advancement. When organizations get too big, they stop exploring smaller, riskier but perhaps more lucrative markets because the resulting revenues won’t affect their bottom line enough. Just as Borders was slow to embrace e-commerce in the bookselling industry, where it had been successful, people who rise to a certain tier in their careers may allow themselves to plateau. Personal growth often stalls at the top of a classic S curve. Disrupters avoid that problem by jumping to a new role, industry, or type of organization and putting themselves on an entirely different growth trajectory.
Adam Richardson did just that when he quit his Sun Microsystems job to enroll in a graduate program unknown to people in his industry. So did Liz Brown, when she left her hard-won job as a law firm partner. And let’s not forget Clay Christensen, who at age 40 left a corporate career at a materials science company to pursue his doctorate at Harvard Business School. That “step down” allowed him to develop a theory that has changed the business world and has thrust him into an extremely successful career as a teacher, consultant, and investor.
Disrupting yourself doesn’t have to mean leaving your organization, however. Take IDEO executive Dave Blakely, who has been with the design consultancy for two decades but worked his way up in a decidedly unconventional manner. A software engineer with a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley, he could have built a successful career in his core area of expertise, perhaps eventually moving to a similar role at another Silicon Valley firm or working his way up to manage technical staff. Instead, Blakely volunteered to become a project manager at IDEO. His peers dismissed the new job as an escape from the rigor and detail of engineering. But the backward move allowed Blakely to broaden his skills and get comfortable with a more diverse group of colleagues, including executives. He started climbing a new ladder and is now head of technology strategy at IDEO. Alex McClung, the health care executive with 15 job changes behind him, has had a similar experience. “The sideways moves accelerated my career by five years or more each time,” he says. “Sideways always turns into a slingshot.”
4. Let your strategy emerge.
Disruptive innovation also rests on what has been described as emergent strategy. Rather than performing detailed market analysis and developing a step-by-step plan to achieve a goal, disrupters are flexible. They take a step forward, gather feedback, and adapt accordingly. As Professor Amar Bhide at Columbia University has shown , 70% of all successful new businesses end up with a strategy different from the one they initially pursued. A well-known example is Netflix, which started as a door-to-door DVD rental service but now focuses on digital streaming of movies.
A parallel exists in disruptive careers. Because we’re not following traditional paths, we can’t always see the end from the beginning. As John D. Rockefeller wrote, “If you want to succeed, you should strike out on new paths, rather than travel worn paths of accepted success.” Crampton, the science teacher, never expected to become a marketer or an online entrepreneur. When Liz Brown was furiously billing hours and winning cases in her quest to make partner at her law firm, she never imagined she’d soon become executive director of Golden Seeds, an investing network for women entrepreneurs, and teaching law at Bentley University.
Another great example comes from Sabina Nawaz. As a young computer engineer at Microsoft, she was moving deftly up the corporate ranks, taking on increasing responsibility, and probably positioning herself for a coveted VP role. But after getting some positive feedback about her management skills and emotional intelligence (perhaps a disruptive strength in the software industry), Nawaz decided to disrupt herself.
“I had been moving up in a traditional step-function way and I knew the formula for success, but I no longer wanted the next title or promotion,” she recalls. “I wanted to stretch my boundaries.” She asked to move into a human resources role, which she held for almost six years. Then, rather than continuing to climb at Microsoft, she left to start a leadership development consultancy. That had never been her career ambition, but Nawaz let her strategy emerge.
The Engine Is You
According to Christensen’s research on disruptive innovation, when a company pursues growth in a new market rather than an established one, the odds of success are six times higher and the revenue potential 20 times greater. It’s impossible to quantify the effects of personal career disruption in the same way, but anecdotal evidence suggests it can yield similar results—dramatically improving your chances of finding financial, social, and emotional success.
The status quo has a powerful undertow, no doubt. Current stakeholders in your life and career will probably encourage you to avoid disruption. For many of us, though, holding steady really means slipping—as we ignore the threat of competition from younger, more agile innovators, bypass opportunities for greater reward, and sacrifice personal growth.
We give a lot of airtime to building, buying, and investing in disruptive companies. They are vital engines of economic growth. But the most overlooked economic engine is you. If you really want to move the world forward, you need to innovate on the inside—and disrupt yourself.