Counseling Today, Features

When work doesn’t work

Lisa A. Mainiero and Sherry E. Sullivan December 22, 2006

Jean is a troubled 40-year-old who has been working as a district manager for the same sales company for eight years. With three children at home, ages 12, 8 and 5, she is torn between priorities for her career and her family life. Her husband’s new job is going to require a lot more travel, and she is wondering what she should do. Give up her career entirely and devote herself to being a full-time mom? Reduce her work hours and take a demotion? Hire a full-time caregiver for her children?

Sam is an accountant who is tired of the daily grind of numbers, numbers, numbers. He was just granted a partnership at his small office in the country, but now he isn’t sure he wants to continue as an accountant. He finds his daily work downright boring. His wife works for a large Fortune 500 firm and was just given a big promotion to the general manager level. She is insisting that they hire a nanny to take care of their kids. But why can’t he be the one to stay home and be a full-time dad?

Meredith has had it all — a high-flying career, a long series of promotions and worldwide travel assignments in far-flung locations. At the end of her career, she is wondering: “Is this all there is to life?” Her husband, a computer graphic artist, doesn’t want to travel anymore, and her children are grown. She is wondering if there is something else — something more — she can do with her career that would be more authentic, more fulfilling and complementary of her passion for gourmet cooking.

Attention career counselors: Jean, Meredith and Sam are typical modern-day careerists with contemporary career and life balance issues. If Jean, Meredith or Sam were to walk into your office today for some career counseling, what advice would you provide? Would you counsel them based on old axioms: Define your priorities; consider what is most important to you; make a decision that is consistent with your values.

A new model

There is a new approach. We have found that today’s workers want “kaleidoscope careers” — careers created on their own terms and defined not by a corporation but by their own values and life choices. In our research with more than 3,000 employees, we discovered that people were making major life changes in their careers to shift the pattern of their lives as needed. People were motivated by three central parameters:

  • Authenticity — a need to be genuine and to act in ways congruent with their values
  • Balance — the need for a more balanced family life
  • Challenge — the need for exciting, stimulating work

We found that today’s workers want the ability to leave their jobs for short periods of time to recharge or to resolve family issues and then to return to those jobs refreshed and more capable than before.

The Kaleidoscope Career Model (KCM) is a new way of thinking about careers. The model suggests that each of the three parameters — authenticity, balance and challenge — is active as a signpost throughout a person’s career. Certain issues predominate at different points in the individual’s life span. For Jean, issues of balance between career and family predominate at this point in time because her husband’s job demands have shifted and she is now worried about her children. For Meredith, issues of authenticity predominate as she reconsiders her priorities at the end of her career. Sam is caught between issues of challenge and balance: His work is no longer stimulating and he wants a break, so the option of becoming a stay-at-home dad is a possibility.

We call this the ABCs (authenticity, balance and challenge) of a kaleidoscope career. Each issue serves as a decision-making parameter that can cause a pivot in thinking about the importance of a career at that particular point in time. Just as a kaleidoscope uses three mirrors to create infinite patterns, the KCM has three “mirrors” or parameters (authenticity, balance and challenge) that combine in different ways throughout a person’s life to reflect the unique patterns of his or her career.

To use an artistic metaphor, the colors of a woman’s kaleidoscope are reflected in these three parameters, shaping her decisions as one aspect of the kaleidoscope takes on greater intensity as a decision-making parameter at different points of her life. Over the course of her life span, as a woman searches for the fit that best matches the character and context of her life, the colors of the kaleidoscope shift in response. One color (parameter) moves to the foreground and intensifies as it takes priority at that time in her life. The other colors lessen in intensity and recede to the background but are still present and active because all aspects are necessary to create the current pattern of her life/career. 

For example, at one point a woman may delay having children so she can devote more energy to her career. At another point, she may subjugate career ambitions for the sake of her family needs. Still later, she may forge ahead, searching for meaning and spirituality in her life. Somewhere in the middle she may be most concerned about balance and relationships in her life. Her context, and the level of stress she experiences at different “tipping points” over the life span, shapes her choices.

We found that women and men have different profiles based on the KCM. Most men were interested in challenge and authenticity early in their careers. In midlife, many men started to express a loss of family closeness and reoriented their motivations around the family balance parameter. It’s not that men do not value family. Instead, we found that men took their roles as family providers quite seriously and demonstrated their love for their families by being the best providers possible.

Women, on the other hand, began their careers with a sense of challenge and inspiration, but in their 30s and 40s, many felt the pull and tug of family balance issues to the point that they sometimes were compelled to “opt out” of their careers. Later, when family responsibilities were equalized and (mostly) completed, many women asked themselves, “Is this all there is?” Driven by the authenticity parameter, they discovered opportunities to be genuine and return to the workforce in ways that followed their passions.

Alpha and beta careers

Our research shows that people today are experimenting with “alpha” and “beta” kaleidoscope careers. Rather than work long, hard hours in pursuit of the brass ring of a promised future promotion, workers today are taking stock and making career decisions that best suit the fabric of their lives. If family concerns are an issue, then a mom or dad may opt out of the workforce for a short period of time to manage elder care or child care responsibilities. If workers want more challenge in their jobs, they are not afraid to look elsewhere for more stimulating work. Still others are putting their need to be genuine first and finding career paths that allow them to behave in accordance with their values. Many of these workers are starting companies of their own.

In a beta kaleidoscope career profile, workers make balance issues the pre-eminent factor in their lives and make career choices that favor family needs. Beta kaleidoscope careerists are more family-centric and less interested in the demands associated with getting promoted. They prefer to have flexible work hours that allow them to more adequately and sanely balance family needs with work. 

Still other careerists fit the alpha kaleidoscope career profile. They are very interested in pursuing their own authentic goals and finding challenging, stimulating work that might involve advancement. For example, in the cases mentioned previously, Meredith, Jean’s husband and Sam’s wife might be alpha careerists. But Jean, Sam and Meredith’s husband might fit more into the beta kaleidoscope profile.

We also found that some women were alpha kaleidoscope careerists — very interested in the challenge of their careers and motivated to do more — while some men, such as Sam in the opening example, wanted to be beta kaleidoscope careerists and focus on aspects of their lives other than work.

Kaleidoscope Career

Self-Inventory

To counsel confused clients who are caught in a bind between their work and family lives, we developed a questionnaire called the Kaleidoscope Career Self-Inventory (KCSI). The inventory helps people realize whether they are motivated to pursue an alpha or beta kaleidoscope career profile. The KCSI examines individuals’ drive for challenge, balance and authenticity in their lives at the present time. Counselors can use the inventory as a tool to help employees realize their career potential or, alternatively, accept that their needs for balance override their desires for promotion.

The KCSI examines three parameters:

  • Authenticity, or a person’s drive to find congruence between work and his or her own personal values. This often involves asking “How can I be authentic, true to myself and make genuine decisions for myself?”
  • This is juxtaposed against …
  • A family’s need for balance, relationships and caregiving, which intersects with …
  • An individual’s need for challenge, career advancement and self-worth

By taking the KCSI, employees can:

  • Identify whether they are motivated by challenge, authenticity or balance at the present time in their lives
  • Discover which of the alpha or beta kaleidoscope career patterns suits their needs at the present time
  • Engage in a discussion with human resource professionals about the possibilities for a more permeable kaleidoscope career in their firms. This may require major shifts and changes in corporate policies and procedures.

Statements on the KCSI include:

  • I look for new challenges in everything I do. (Challenge)
  • I hope to find a greater purpose to my life that suits who I am. (Authenticity)
  • I constantly arrange my work around my family needs. (Balance)
  • I want to leave my signature on what I accomplish in life. (Authenticity)
  • My work is meaningless if I can’t take the time to be with my family. (Balance)
  • Most people would describe me as being very goal-directed. (Challenge)

For career counselors, the KCSI is an important tool for assessing the strength of these parameters in each individual’s life. Based on the results, you will be able to counsel clients on the concept of kaleidoscope careers and help them determine whether an alpha or beta kaleidoscope career profile is right for them at the present time. Depending on the decision that is reached, clients may be referred to human resource professionals who can downscale or upsize their work responsibilities accordingly.

Workers today often find themselves caught in a bind between priorities for their careers and their family lives. Career counselors can help clients fraught with anxiety over these issues determine the best fit for their lives. By understanding the concept of a kaleidoscope career and by defining priorities in terms of authenticity, balance and challenge, career counselors can make a difference in people’s lives and reduce their stress levels.

To learn more about kaleidoscope careers and what today’s workers want, read our book, The Opt-Out Revolt: Why People Are Leaving Companies to Create Kaleidoscope Careers. Visit our website at www.theoptoutrevolt.com.

Sherry E. Sullivan is a career coach at the Reed Center for Careers and Diversity. She has published more than 100 articles in Career Development International, Career Development Quarterly, International Journal of Career Management and many other journals, and held numerous leadership positions in the Careers Division of the Academy of Management.

Lisa A. Mainiero has served in leadership positions for the Academy of Management’s Gender and Diversity Division and as a member of that organization’s Career Division Executive Board. She has counseled hundreds of M.B.A. and undergraduate students through her popular yearly course, “Career Planning.” Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org