You can't hop to the top


In her latest Harvard Business Review article, "Job-Hopping to the Top and Other Career Fallacies", Monika Hamori of Spain's IE Business School provides a powerful challenge to orthodox thinking about careers. She talked to Stuart Crainer about the new career realities.

Your article identifies four career fallacies. What are they?

The first fallacy is that job hoppers prosper. My research suggests they do not. Staying put is often the best strategy.

The second fallacy is that a job move should always be a move up. While 40 per cent of job moves can be interpreted as a promotion, the same number are a move laterally and 20 per cent are a move downwards.

The third fallacy is that career and industry switchers are penalized. Actually, changing industries and careers can be useful.

And the final fallacy I identified is that big fish swim in big ponds. This is the assumption that people who work with prestige brand-name corporations tend to move from one to another. I found that 64 per cent of executives who left a company on Fortune's Most Admired Companies ranking left for a company not on the ranking.

What's the key thing that people should take away from the article and your research?

When it comes to careers people often go with common sense advice. But, when you analyse the issues with hard data the conclusions are often strikingly different from received wisdom.

As an example, common sense would say that it makes a lot of sense to hop between employers. This is thought to be very rewarding for your career in terms of promotion. But actually when you analyse the data those who have hopped between employers take a much longer time to get to the top of corporate hierarchies.

So loyalty is a good thing?

Loyalty is a good thing and this flies in the face of common wisdom, especially after the 1990s.

Over the past ten years there have been many articles in the popular press and elsewhere portraying individuals who hop between corporations every 18 months and are very successful. This isn't an accurate picture of the new career realities. Staying with the same organization is often a better route up the career ladder.

Tell us about the research. What did your research involve?

My new Harvard Business Review article is actually based on several sources of research. First, I'm using data from an executive search firm. That covers 14,000 executives in the financial services industry. The search firm tracked the most recent career history of these individuals and that's what I'm analysing. Besides that, I also looked at the entire career histories of more than 1,000 CEOs in charge of the 1,000 largest organizations in Europe and in the United States.

Also, I conducted 45 interviews with executive search consultants and asked them about how they select executives into top jobs. I also interviewed some of our executive students here at IE Business School and asked about their career experiences and career success factors.

Are the things you talk about in the article universal, or are they different within America and Europe and so on?

There are differences but, very strikingly, not the differences you would expect. For example, it is often thought that European executives are more loyal to their corporations.

When I analysed the hard data I didn't see striking differences between the number of employers that the executives have worked for, or their tenure, the number of years that they spent in an organization. I didn't see radical differences between US and European CEOs. Both have worked for an average of three corporations throughout their career.

If you did the research now, would it be different?

No, I don't think so because the issues that I'm looking at, the reward for loyalty to an organization or whether cross-industry moves work out or not, I don't think that the conclusions from those findings would change past the recession. Maybe we see fewer job hoppers in a recession, fewer people have the courage to change employers, but in terms of career success factors these don't change.

Should executives be worried by your findings?

There is nothing worrying in my findings. But they should encourage executives to reconsider the factors behind successful promotions. With regards to loyalty, executives might think that if they change employers every three years it will pay a reward. Maybe in terms of pay it does, but after a time these individuals are perceived very negatively.

Some executives also think that changing industries or changing functions will have career penalties. Actually, my research shows there is no career penalty for industry changers or those who jump between different job functions.

Actually, these moves are very rewarding for careers, and as of 2010 I would say that they are almost essential to access top positions in large corporations where multi-industry and multi-function experience is needed.

What are the implications for head-hunters of your research? After all head-hunters encourage people to change jobs because they make more money that way.

There is definitely a paradox here. Head-hunters make job transitions a lot smoother and faster, and they are responsible for much of the movement within industries or across industries.

Ironically, however, they really value loyalty to organizations and yet are actually very selective when it comes to that loyalty. They look at career histories, how much time people have spent in organizations and many head-hunters are fast to disqualify frequent job hoppers. They don't think that type of candidate would be very appealing to their clients. The people who are responsible for many of the transitions actually want to see the profile of a loyal candidate when it comes to their own searches.

What was the thing that surprised you most in the research?

The most surprising thing I found was that cross-industry and cross-functional moves are not penalised. That really runs counter to conventional wisdom. You would expect that people who don't have industry specific or function specific skills would actually fare worse and would be penalised in some way - perhaps with a slower promotion - but I didn't find that.

Where has this research led to now?

I'm looking at other determinants of career success. In this research I was looking at job hopping, cross-industry and cross-functional moves. Currently, I'm also looking at job specific experience and whether it helps executives at new organizations. Does experience in the CEO post really help in a new CEO job?

Do you think we need to rethink how we hire CEOs?

Yes, I think so. My findings very convincingly reveal that job specific experience doesn't bring any positive benefits. But, if you take a look at the hiring practices of boards, when they look at the job applicants that they want to target, they most commonly target people who are already in the position that they are looking for.

In other words, if they are looking for a CEO, then they only look at the population of CEOs. This means they all too readily shun lower ranking executives, very promising COOs, or presidents who would be great CEO candidates.

I think that's a mistake. They should also look at lower ranking executives. In addition, my research shows that boards too often go outside their organizations in the search for talent and that strategy for doesn't tend to pay off either. Internal candidates who have had a longer tenure with the organization actually fare better after becoming CEO.

So rather than hiring some big name CEO from another organization, they are generally better off promoting the COO?

Exactly, or really widen the pool and look at promising COOs , Executive Vice Presidents or top executives in other organizations because job specific experience doesn't seem to be paying off.


About The Author

Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer
Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer

Des Dearlove is a long-term contributor and columnist for The Times and a contributing editor to Strategy+Business. Stuart Crainer is a contributing editor to Strategy+Business and executive editor of Business Strategy Review.