6 Trends that will Determine your Career Success in the 21st Century

There are six major trends that are going to determine the careers of graduates in the 21st century:

  1. Shortening of the life cycle of organizations and businesses.
  2. From life-long full-time employment to short term, contractual, project-based engagements
  3. From teaching to learning
  4. From knowledge acquisition to enterprising creativity and innovation
  5. From management to leadership. From managed employees to self-driven autonomous decision makers.
  6. From choosing a career vision to choosing your purpose
[Based on my Orientation Speech for new students at IoBM on September 5, 2015.]

1. Shortening of Life Cycle of Organizations and Businesses

There were companies that were Built to Last [1]. There were companies that used to feature year after year in Fortune 500 list. Now times have changed. Number of companies making it to the top and then receding into oblivion is increasing at a fast rate. Companies like Nokia climbed to the top and then vanished into oblivion within a decade [2]. There were great companies like Encyclopedia Britannica that ruled for centuries and then disappeared into history’s oblivion within a few years after the advent of wikipidea. Companies with big name are merging and morphing all over. Only those companies would now survive that can innovate, create new value propositions and reinvent themselves every few years: Apple is surviving because it has moved quickly from desktop computing, to animations, to i-pods, to i-phones to i-notes. Intel is surviving at the top because of its ability to reinvent its core business with relentless innovations. 
The consequence of this shortening of life cycle of organizations and their high rate of disappearance is that you can no longer afford the luxury of a life-long employment. Only the paranoids can survive as the title of Intel’s CEO’s book testifies [4]. Or, as the theme of the famous commencement speech of Steve Jobs at Stanford, testifies with “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” [5]. As the companies are forced to reinvent themselves every few years, so are the employees forced to reinvent themselves. Promise of life-time employment was already dead 20 years ago, when it was reported that the number of times an average employee had to reinvent his career was three times. The number of times an employee is expected to reinvent himself has now climbed up to over seven! [6]

The significance of this trend is that when you start your career in a particular discipline, you should expect to learn a new specialization every five years or so during your professional career. Hence, you should undertake studies with an open mind. No subject is unimportant or irrelevant to your future direction of the career. Real life situations are so complex that you need to have knowledge from many different areas to make sensible decisions. Your learning curve should not flatten.

I often see students who want to go into marketing but do not pay attention to finance, thinking that it is irrelevant to their specialization area. Those going in for computer science often do not take seriously management courses thinking that management is unrelated to their specialization. Business students, likewise, often think that social science courses are irrelevant. They are ignoring that a seemingly irrelevant subject may turn out to be the very area where future potential is. Who knows what a graduate may be doing 20 years hence!

2. From Life-Long Employment to Short-Term Engagements

Life-long and full-time employment at an organization from where you leave only after retirement is increasingly becoming rare. The trend is increasingly towards project-based assignments which are typically short-term and contractual in nature. We are increasingly witnessing even good companies laying off thousands of employees during a hint of a downturn. Capacity of companies to absorb the shock during downturns and survive is severely curtailed. I often meet people in their mid-careers who are laid off because they have risen to a salary bracket which is no longer affordable by their companies. They then feel the pressure to go into another field or become consultants so that they can independently work on project assignments.

Significance of this trend  is that you need to be mentally prepared to redesign your specialization every few years. Each student should be preparing for becoming an entrepreneur or consultant with skills to work independently. A consultant today is expected to be a marketer, salesman, accountant, financial analyst, manager, web designer, and a strategist all rolled into one along with whatever is his distinctive expertise. Look closely and you will see that even senior executives are processing their own emails (a task previously done by their secretaries), answering calls and sending sms. They are also conducting bank transactions online (a task typically done by peons previously) as well as maintaining their own personal websites/linked-in accounts, and are also conducting other professional activities online. They now require expertise of tools that were earlier only the domain of specialists such as maintaining web presence, making short videos, maintaining blogs, etc. These tools are becoming essential for promoting web presence, expertise, and linkages on social and professional networks. These linkages are going to be helpful in obtaining better project assignments and opportunities.  

My advice to you is based on what was given to me several years ago when I was in a similar orientation session for new entrants at IBA. Professor Dr Matin A. Khan in 1985 orientation session told us that a university is not only a place for acquisition of knowledge, but is also a platform for networking and learning interpersonal skills [9]. To gain maximum benefit, each student should develop a network of contacts and maintain them during the subsequent professional life. Standing here I would repeat that advice to you again. I expect that at the time of your graduation, you should have at least 400 contacts in your smart phones. I assure you that those of you who would follow this advice would be destined to the top of your chosen field. When I say contacts I mean friends, and by friend I mean someone with whom you have dined; either you have paid for the food or your friend should have paid for it. These friends would later be a source of information about the trends in industry, open positions, opportunities and extended networking.

A few days ago a friend of mine who was my class fellow during engineering and who had been working with Siemens for over 25 years and then with some other big names in electrical engineering, was discussing with me how to position himself as a consultant and he was also thinking of doing some teaching. I recommended to him that he needs to design the next ten to fifteen years of his professional life as a consultant operating from a university platform for which he should be thinking of doing an MPhil and PhD. I told him that there are at least two PhD faculty members at our institution who had recently completed their PhDs at 60 years of age in a part-time capacity, and a couple of others who are post 60 years of age and are pursuing their PhD!

3. From Teaching to Learning

How did you learn the smart phones? Did a teacher teach you that? How did you learn to use the computer or Internet? Did a teacher teach you that? How did you learn to use the games or other softwares? Did someone teach you that? Your answers to all these questions would be no. These questions highlight a revolutionary trend in education. The role of a teacher is transforming into that of a facilitator or a mentor. The students are now becoming “learners”. Basically the emphasis is now changing from teaching to learning. This is visible in the terminologies that are being used. We are no longer talking about teaching methodologies. We are increasingly talking about learning methodologies: Experiential Learning, Project Based Learning, Problem Based Learning. Emphasis is on the learners, no longer on teachers or pedagogy or educational system.

Once you complete your university education, you would no longer have the luxury to go for an extensive re-education as a full-time student for a new technology or a new career. You would most probably be doing this learning on your own or in a part-time capacity. 

Illiterate is a person who can neither read or write. However, a functional illiterate is a person who knows how to read but does not read, who knows how to write but does not write! Unfortunately in Pakistan, we seem to be producing Functional Illiterates [14], and we should be producing readers and writers and want you to be a reader and a writer.

You need to be able to learn from the books and other resources on your own. You need to be a voracious reader. You need to be subscribing to some carefully selected blogs that would open your mind with interesting and new information. We often forget that we don’t study for a degree, we “read” for the degree. Unfortunately, in Pakistan students are not reading on their own. In USA with a population of 300 million the number of books being published in a year were 450 million. In Pakistan, the number of books getting published are no more than a few lacs. When I hear the excuse people often offer that they are too busy in their work, I ask them whether they are more busy than the president of USA, and then I tell them George Bush was reading 20+ books in a year during his presidential years [8]!

You also need to be a writer. Each one of you should have a blog wherein you collect all of your writings and thoughts in a formal manner. This is the place where you will highlight the projects that you have undertaken, the learning you have achieved, and interesting things that you would like the world to know. For example, this talk that I am giving is already there on my blog. You can also see that some of the thoughts that I am telling you in this post are described by other detailed posts on this blog. 

During the next four years of your stay here you need to wean off from this dependence on tutors and teachers. You need to transform yourself from a student who is forced by the university to study into a willing independent self-learner who is able to learn on his own. Just recall how you learned to use the smart phone. The 21st century is about smart people and smart phones and every thing becoming smart. The only way to survive is to overcome your fear of taking a plunge and fear of making mistakes as you learn new things. The challenge is similar to what you may have felt when you began to learn swimming, and overcoming the fear of drowning was the major impediment. But once the fear was conquered, the experience became extremely joyful. This challenge is similar to what you feel when you try to come out of your comfort zone and venture in to learning a new discipline, a new software and a new way of doing things.

Every few years a new technology and new device and a new way of working would be presenting to you. You need to learn it on your own. Life in your comfort zone is no longer going to be an option. You need to be on the move, learning new things, exploring new worlds and venturing where no one has gone before. This is the age of discovery, adventure, thrill of being on your own in a brave new world. 

4. From Knowledge Acquisition to Enterprising Creativity and Innovation

I have often observed in meetings and even in classroom discussions that during a discussion on an issue there is always someone in the room who had already googled it during the discussion and has the definitive answer about the issue. Therefore, obtaining a particular information is a no-brainer today. However, pulling out the relevant information and quickly transforming it into a format that is customized for your particular need and context is a special skill that is in high demand. Knowledge transformation, customization and synthesis into a new form is of  high premium today. Having knowledge that you can just parrot has no premium. Creativity is coming up with a new arrangement of existing ideas and quickly converting it into an implementation that is useful and providing value is a crucial skill. 
21st century skills require you to be able to go beyond the limited IQ definition of Maths and Language to Multiple Intelligences involving your artistic, physical, emotional, interpersonal, logical, natural, verbal and other intelligences into sharpened tools that can be quickly adapted to use for any problem. Creativity and innovation requires stimulation and ability to connect information from several sources. Multi-dimensional exposure is essential. So, too is the ability to convert ideas into sustained action.
Creativity and Innovation is the core of entrepreneurship. We expect 20-30% of you to become entrepreneurs. We don’t want you to be job seekers. We want you to be job creators. We want you to be enterprising in identifying opportunities and capitalizing on them.

The other prerequisite for creativity and innovation is not to have a fear of failure. When Edison was asked whether he was discouraged when he failed several hundred times in his attempt to invent the light bulb, he replied that he did not because he always considered each failure a necessary step of the process of creating the light bulb; the process of creating a light bulb consisted of several hundred steps (failures). Each failure is a learning. Each setback measures your resolve to succeed. Entrepreneurs are not afraid of making mistakes. But, once a mistake is made, they learn from it and ensure that they never again make the same mistake twice. 

5. From Management to Leadership

50 years ago we used to have administrators, hence the name of the MBA degree was Masters in Business Administration. Institutions established at that time proudly put the word “Administration” in their name. In the eighties and nineties the discipline expanded and started to be called management. Hence institutions formed in 1980s and 1990s were proud to put the word “Management” in their name. The key word today is leadership. Institutions coming up now are proud to use the word Leadership in their name. The transformation of the term is highlighting the trend from “management” to “leadership”. Even MIT’s computer science program’s vision is to develop “leaders” in computer science.

What is the difference between management and leadership? A manager is controlled extrinsically and is also responsible to control those under him. A leader however is intrinsically motivated. He does not require external stimuli to work. He does not need to be told what to do. He knows where he is going, where the organization is going and he proactively works in taking the organization and people in the direction that is a win-win situation for all.

As students and graduates you should understand that no boss likes telling the subordinate every little bit that needs to be done every day. You need to develop initiative and adopt a proactive approach. Leadership is a huge subject and several posts on this blog detail its various aspects.

There are three competencies of a leader that are necessary to inspire the followers on the path towards the destination [7]. These competencies serve as a beacon of hope and encouragement for the followers to overcome the hardships likely to be encountered on the way. These are (i) the loftiness of vision (nigah-buland), (ii) heart-touching communication (sukhan dil-nawaz) and (iii) passionate soul (jan pur-soz) with empathy. 

6. From Choosing a Career Vision to Choosing your Purpose

World around us is changing fast. People living fifty years ago would be greatly surprised to see our life styles. Changes in networking, cellular technologies, merging of industries have changed the complexion of the word and industries. Previously industries that were considered to be separate have now morphed together. Previously computer industry was separate from telecommunication industry, which was separate from the film industry, which was separate from the encyclopedia industry, which was separate from the telephone industry, which was separate from the TV industry, which was separate from the print media industry, which was separate from the camera industry, and on and on. They have all converged and merged together [10]. Many other segments of lives are already merged together and in the process of merging including our social life, our professional life, our private life and our travels and so on.

To make sense of this fast changing world you can no longer define yourself in terms of things, or jobs or careers. Each one of them may be vastly different in a few years from what you see today. Your rooting, should therefore be in something that will not change so that it can provide stability and can help you in retaining your sanity and equanimity [11].

The only anchor now remaining for you is your purpose of life or mission. This is the only thing that would give you meaning and would provide you a root and a pivot around which you can design your future changes. From vision to purpose is a trend sweeping across management literature and can be seen from books by Stephen Covey [12] and Jim Collins [1] and other management gurus.

Purpose is determined by passion, and mission of your life is determined by a goal higher than yourself. You can only remain motivated throughout your life if you have universal principles guiding you. As mentioned by Stephen Covey in his excellent book “Principle Centered Leadership”, some people are parents-centered, some are friends-centered, some are gadgets-centered or things-centered and some are self-centered. Each one of these centers can not survive for long as your pivot and anchor. Parents grow old and eventually leave this world, friend grow apart, gadgets and cars and things and clothes become obsolete the day they are bought, as you find out that there is always a better model/fad for every thing. Your youth, beauty and vanity will all fade. The only thing that keeps you from being disappointed in this life is your rooting and anchor in universal principles. These principles never become obsolete, they never get old, and they never fade. They have remained  for ever and would remain for ever. These are the principles on which you should anchor your life.

These universal principles include among others integrity, honesty, and fairness. This is the time for you to get yourself anchored in these universal principles for developing a principles centered leadership [7]:

Lastly remember that your purpose of life should be anchored in the purpose of education for which you have come here. This includes to spread light every where and remove darkness from the world. Your objective is not just to illuminate your household but also to illuminate the entire world [5].

Door Dunya Ka Mere Dam Se Andhera Ho Jaye
Har Jagah Mere Chamakne Se Ujala Ho Jaye

World’s Darkness may Disappear Through My Life!

May Every Place Light Up With The Sparkling Light Of Mine!


Delivered as Orientation Speech for new students at IoBM on September 5, 2015.

[1] Built to Last by Jim Collins, 1994, HarperBusiness
[2] Nokia: The Rise and Fall of the Mobile Giant, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-23947212
[3] How Encyclopedia Britannica Was Blown To Bits, http://capitalismmagazine.com/2000/12/how-encyclopedia-britannica-was-blown-to-bits/
[4] Only the Paranoid Survive by Andy Grove, Doubleday, 1996
[5] Steve Jobs Commencement Speech at Stanford 2005
[6] Job Hopping Is the ‘New Normal’ for Millennials: Three Ways to Prevent a Human Resource Nightmare, Forbes, Aug 14, 2012
[7] Nine (9) Dimensions of Ethical Leadership, syedirfanhyder.blogspot.com
[8] George W. Bush as an Avid Reader, Richard Cohen, Washington Post, Dec 30, 2008.
[9] Of Hanafi School of Marketing, Orientation of New Students and Dr Matin A Khan, syedirfanhyder.blogspot.com
[10] Big Data, Management Transformation and Voyager of Star Trek Movie by Irfan Hyder, http://syedirfanhyder.blogspot.com/2014/11/big-data-management-transformation-and.html
[11] Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, Random House, 1970.
[12] Principles Centered Leadership by Stephen Covey, Franklin Covey, Simon and Schuster, 1992
[13] Why Education and Why Higher Education by Irfan Hyder, syedirfanhyder.blogspot.com
[14] How our Education System is Producing Non-Readers and Functional Illiterates
[15] Urdu couplets are of Iqbal. Pictures of Iqbal’s couplets are from iqbalurdu.blogspot.com

See Also:


6 responses to “6 Trends that will Determine your Career Success in the 21st Century”

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