The Zig-Zag Career Path

The new road map for getting ahead.

Susan Crocker, a 54-year-old ex-Peace Corps volunteer, could never have predicted that she'd end up as a manager in Hewlett-Packard's North American distribution organization. Her zig-zag path -- moving laterally, jumping organizational levels, taking a step back so she could someday move forward -- illustrates the new road map for getting ahead.

Crocker has worked for three different companies. She's been laid off and she's resigned. She's had 11 promotions and 17 titles. She's worked for 26 bosses; about 145 people have worked for her. What do you call it? A resume? A career? Call it a life.

Here's her story, and the lessons she's learned.

Challenge beats advancement.

Armed with a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's in social policy and planning, Crocker signed up with the Peace Corps in 1965. She lived in Chile for two years, teaching nutrition in mountain villages. It was an experience, she says, that forced her to take risks.

But when she took her first corporate job in 1983, as a marketing administration manager at Varian Associates, she felt boxed in. "There weren't any opportunities to grow and expand my knowledge. The only opportunities were to get better at the thing I was already doing," she says.

She played the game the traditional way at Varian for five years. She got restless. Lured by the prospect of working in a fast-paced environment, she answered a newspaper ad for Apple Computer and landed a job as a planner. It was a step back: at Varian, she managed a staff of 10 people; at Apple, she wasn't expected to manage anyone at all.

The Lesson: "In any career, the most important thing is always to be moving to more challenging work, and that doesn't always mean moving up," says Betsy Collard, director of program development at Palo Alto's Career Action Center. "If you aren't stretched, you're dying on the vine."

Turmoil can be enriching.

Her first day on the job, Crocker walked into her office and found an Apple II sitting on her desk. She'd never worked on a computer before. Her first assignment -- to document the life cycle of the Apple II -- was particularly daunting: she didn't know what a product life cycle was.

"We'd talk about R&D, manufacturing, marketing, and those were worlds that I simply was not familiar with," she recalls. But she quickly realized that she wasn't alone. "We didn't have models for marketing computers -- there was nothing to follow. We were all learning."

She caught on, got results, and threw off all the traditional notions of career advancement. "I learned that in many respects, managing a career is like managing perpetual motion." Less than nine months after she joined Apple, she was promoted to a marketing manager job. Five months later, she took on a role in strategic planning for marketing the Mac and Apple II. Her next move: managing the marketing communications department. "It was a lateral move, not a promotion, but it was the chance to learn something new and I grabbed it." Several months later, she was picked to manage corporate communications for the entire company.

The Lesson: "People should realize that some of the best career opportunities are gained from moving over," says Betsy Collard. "If you don't, you lose out on the opportunity for growth and change that a different perspective brings."

To make yourself marketable, look for opportunities to learn.

In 1985, the ax fell. Apple reduced its workforce by 23%. Crocker got a pink slip. She felt relieved. Unemployment represented a chance to take stock and try something new.

She took a month off to work in her garden, and then got a job at Hewlett-Packard. It was a step down. At Apple, she managed almost 40 people and had "a lot more status." At HP, she was "not in a position that was particularly visible or particularly influential." Most people would view that as a personal hit. Crocker saw it as an opportunity. Growth would come from learning about a new product and working in a radically different environment.

Nine months later she was promoted to market-survey manager, where she supervised 10 people. After seven years and two more moves, her job was eliminated. It was up to her to find a vacant position in HP and apply for it. Once again, she stood at a crossroads.

The Lesson: "To turn a bad situation into an opportunity, slow down," advises Collard. "Think about when and how you do your best work. Taking stock of where you stand can be a healing process. It can also be a pivotal opportunity to find work that's more in keeping with who you really are."

Losing your role can help you find your way.

As crocker interviewed through-out the organization, she did some soul-searching and came to a realization: "I really wasn't interested in anything technical."

She also was influenced by a personal realization, which came while watching Brian Boitano skate to a gold medal in the 1988 Winter Olympics. Watching the world-class skater, she knew she'd never be a world-class executive.

"It was sobering," she says. "I never thought I'd be the head of a company, but I did think that I'd be up there somewhere in that senior group. Sitting there watching Brian Boitano, I realized that's not who I am. But I went on to understand that other things are more important to me. There needs to be an alignment between my values and the work I'm doing."

At age 52, Crocker realized that the young woman who had journeyed to Chile to help people was still very much a part of who she was. She found a position in the personnel department of HP's North American distribution organization. It felt right: the job was to codevelop a program that would teach career self-reliance to HP managers. It also allowed her to devote time to her community of Woodside, California. She worked flexible hours, got into town politics, and was elected mayor in 1993.

The Lesson:"There's nothing like the discomfort of losing your role to make you reevaluate what's really important at work and in life," observes Collard. "When an assignment comes to an end, it should be viewed as a chance to move on to a new challenge."

What's next for Susan Crocker? She doesn't pretend to have the answer. "All I know is if I'm not taking risks in my job, I'm not living. The important thing is to keep moving, to keep learning."

That's the thrill of the journey.

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