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Managing your career in a VUCA World

Are you a manager looking to take your game to the next level within your organization? A CEO who wants to make the move to a new company? Or an executive seeking the kind of new experience you can only get from a stint working abroad? Regardless of which direction you see your career taking, in today’s world, you need to continue to actively manage it through its whole trajectory.

“Because of the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) environment, you can no longer be static in your career,” says Joanna Moss, Executive Coach and IESE Alumni career advisor.  In the past, “you might be employed by a company and progress through the organization throughout your professional life. That is no longer the case today. Anyone who thinks like that will get left behind,” she adds.

Within this environment, there are three key career development challenges: strategy, international career planning and changing labor markets. Here’s how you address these challenges.

Prepare for Uncertainty

There are six critical areas to take into account when managing your career in a VUCA setting, says Lars Maydell, former executive recruitment firm Egon Zehnder and IESE Alumni career advisor:

1. Focus on extraordinary management skills.

These increasingly include soft skills, but many stick to traditional management practices because they prefer the world to be rational and want to maximize efficiency.
With extraordinary management, you won’t win all the time. Life becomes quite irrational, and you need a skill set to deal with it. The skills you need to prepare involve communication, influencing, lowering hierarchies and inclusion.

2. Make great people decisions. 

The best way to foster career success is to have the right people around you. This means choosing the right peers, bosses, spouses, doctors and lawyers.

3. Work effectively with headhunters.

Executive search firms no longer focus on competencies. Due to the influence of Silicon Valley, they now look for indicators of potential. Research at Egon Zenhder indicates that five traits help predict executive success: motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement and determination.
“For engagement, we ask: do you have the brain and the heart to motivate people in a positive way?” says Maydell. “At every level, you can look for these indicators of potential and headhunters more and more do so.”

4. Understand your biases.

People are much more likely to cling to their current jobs than go for new opportunities, observed Daniel Kahneman, 2002 Nobel laureate and expert in behavioral economics. To counter this bias, managers should discount the quality of their current job or double the attractiveness of the target to get an objective picture.

5. Find your career purpose.

Basing career decisions on financial rewards is one of the worst traps to fall into. Managers should focus on what kind of work gives life meaning to them.

6. Refine Your Professional Appearance. 

This begins with writing a meaningful CV that indicates your achievements, as well as your personal values. A CV that includes your core values is helpful for executive search firms and will enable you to better reflect on where you want to go.


In addition to these six steps, Maydell advises managers to step back from their careers on a regular basis to gain perspective. “You need to reflect with other people and look at your life as if it were another person.”


Take advantage of global career opportunities

When it comes to a global career move, “just do it,” asserts Moss, “an international career will change you.”

There are three distinct career stages when you might be considering an international move.

The first stage is early in a manager’s career, when a short two-year “hop” is easiest. At the second stage, at mid-career, more consideration is often required since family members will be affected. At the third stage, senior level, a move may provide the best opportunities, but should be made with a clear strategy for moving back to your home country.

“Sometimes moves are organized by a company, but sometimes they come around completely by accident,” she says. “If you know what you’re going towards, it’s much easier to spot an opportunity.”

An agile career: match skills with needs

“The war for talent is back, but the rules have changed,” says IESE Alumni career advisor Iñaki Saltor. In some countries, such as Spain, there is now a disconnect between professional profiles and the needs of companies. Demographic shifts and the expatriation of talent have created additional challenges for firms.


Managers seeking new opportunities should work on attitudinal skills such as creativity, initiative and emotional intelligence; make use of online tools; and take great care of their professional networks. You can develop these skills on every executive education program in IESE’s broad and top–ranked portfolio.

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