The Other Lens: Throwing out the mould of the linear career path

20th April 2016

Posted In: The Topic

I read a great article in The Jakarta Post last week. It was titled “Are women’s leadership assumptions holding them back?”. Ugh, I thought to myself, yet another article on women and confidence.

If you have read my previous columns, you know that that I don’t believe that women lack confidence (we just manifest it differently) nor do I believe that we need to be ‘fixed’, quite the opposite in fact, with regards to work and leadership. I believe that we are bringing something new and very powerful to the table and it needs to be named, owned, understood and amplified. So this article, sat on my desk for a week before I found time to read it. I am glad I did.

Words: Jennifer Kenny

The author, Xiaowei Luo, who is the associate professor of Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise at INSEAD, makes the wonderful point that “one of the greatest hindrances (to women assuming more senior leadership positions) is women’s own assumptions that they have to make choices (listen sacrifices) and follow a specific career route if they are to take on senior leadership roles. The idea that they must choose between family and career seems to be the biggest obstacle.”

This is a powerful springboard for fundamentally reframing the conversation. What if we looked at the career vs. family choice differently?


1.There are as many possible career routes are there are senior level positions

Instead of assuming that a non-linear career route with a number of hiatuses could be considered a failure or a shortcoming in getting promoted to a more senior position, think of it as an ‘interruption’. Luo uses the great example of Steve Jobs who after getting kicked out by Apple’s board in 1985, (big interruption) set up NEXT. When he finally returned to Apple the experience at NEXT positioned him to make an even greater contribution. I’m not suggesting we are all Steve Jobs but neither are we that different. A hiatus or a change can make you more resilient, more flexible and more determined. Plan for it as much as you can, and if an unplanned one does happen, don’t let it paralyse you. As Lou says: “The reality is, if handled well, interruptions (note she does not say failures) can be turned into strengths”. Which leads us to my second point.



2. Never stop investing in yourself

If you want to continue playing the game – whatever your game is – never stop investing in yourself. Many women who have hiatuses, changes, interruptions in their career, either due to motherhood, relocating for a husband’s career, family commitments to children or aging parents, focus all of their attention on whoever they are helping or supporting, which on the surface is noble, BUT at the same time, they often stop investing in themselves. Anytime you completely sacrifice your own dreams, wishes, desires and ambitions to another, you sabotage your own sense of self and by implication your self-confidence. Mother Theresa, despite all of her apparent sacrifice, was doing exactly what she wanted to do and derived great reward and satisfaction from her work. Never stop investing in yourself, and remember you don’t always need money to invest in yourself you just need time. Set up your life so you always have time for yourself.



3. Never stop connecting and cross-referencing your learning

I fully realise the reality that most men, particularly senior men, consider work to be work and life to be life, never the twain shall meet; and personal stories and examples are considered a sign of disruptive behaviour in the workplace. However, that is indeed changing.

Life if framed, observed and studied with some level of rigour and discipline is one of the richest and most fertile learning grounds for leadership. Experiencing life through motherhood, or fatherhood, moving for a husband or wife’s career, delivering on family commitments to children or ageing parents can be a huge space for learning. (My daughter has taught me more about leading and managing people than any ‘business’ management or leadership course I could have conceived of or found.)

If you compartmentalise these aspects of your life and view them as separate from and not contributing to your learning you are 1) missing out on a huge opportunity for learning 2) giving up a lot of power that can be derived from claiming the value of that learning. If you so choose many, many of your experiences outside of your paying job/career can be experiences that allow you to make a greater contribution to whatever you choose as your next position.

As we better define the feminine traits and qualities, that coupled with masculine traits, make for truly great leaders, I expect that we will begin to appreciate that flexibility, integrated holistic thinking and empathy – all things well learned via ‘interruptions’ are as valuable and sometimes more valuable than anything learned via a linear (and sometimes myopic) career progression.


1.Lou, Xiaowei, Rose. Jakarta Post April 4th, 2016. “Are Women’s Leadership assumptions holding them back?

Jennifer Kenny is a thought leader in leadership and the design of human work. She is CEO of BizThink. You can find her at and on Twitter @jenniferlkenny. She is Irish, she works in the US and occasionally lives in Jakarta.