Friday, 20 January 2012

Protean Career: Become a Master of Change

"The career of the 21st century will be protean, a career that is driven by the person, not the organization, and that will be reinvented by the person from time to time, as the person and the environment change."
D.T.Hall (1996) in Protean Careers in the 21st Century

During my career, the most distressed clients I have worked with have been those who have been the victims of change. These clients are referred to me for career counselling by employers wanting to support their employees as they transition out of the organisation. It’s common for these individuals to have been made redundant after many years, even decades, with the company. These individuals suffer distress for a number of reasons. In some cases they didn’t see the change coming and didn't have time to react. But more often than not, they were aware of the impending change but rather than prepare for its arrival, reacted in denial or conflict.

How could these individuals have better prepared themselves? 


Protean career theory was first introduced by Douglas T. Hall in 1976 in his book Careers in Organizations. Inspired by the Greek sea god Proteus who could change forms at will in the face of oncoming opportunities or threats, protean career theory asserts that in order to succeed, individuals need to be highly flexible and adaptable to change or what I like to call, masters of change.

American motivational speaker and career coach Jay Block defines being protean as the ability to ‘anticipate, adapt, and act’ suggesting we need to anticipate changes before they occur, equip ourselves to adapt to the changes when they arrive, and to act in the face of change when the time comes.

A protean careerist, someone who adapts a protean career approach, is also committed to their own ongoing personal and professional development. By developing their career competencies including interpersonal, communication and transferable work skills they become well-equipped to cope with change.

Here are some practical ways you can prepare your
self for change:
  • commit to your own ongoing professional development by attending courses, workshops, seminars and conferences
  • diversify the breadth and range of your experience by engaging in new projects when the opportunity arises
  • network extensively to increase your connections and be kept in the loop about what's going on in your industry
  • seek out a mentor who can become a valuable support and help identify areas for development
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, or the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change."
Charles Darwin
An aspect of protean career theory I am particularly fond of is the focus on psychological success. As you will see from the table below, psychological success is the key success criteria in protean career theory. That’s right, in protean career theory, your psychological success is more important than merely your position or salary level. Who wouldn’t want psychological success? But the truth is, many of us still strive for the traditional success criteria of position and salary. This fits nicely with the belief that the key to real success and happiness is to ensure your career development plan aligns not only with your career goals but your personal goals too.  

‘Elements in the protean career ‘ in Careers in Organizations (Hall, 1976)


Are you a protean careerist? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

Lisa LaRue, MCareerDev, BSocSc(Couns), DipCareerGuid, MCDI is a Career Development Consultant & Career Coach at CareerWorx www.careerworx.co.uk 

2 comments:

  1. How would you describe boundaryless career?

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  2. Thanks for your comment J John. Because of their similarity, you'll find the terms boundaryless and protean careers are often used interchangeably. A boundaryless career is typically described as one that progresses in a non-linear way and with more than one employer. I hope this helps.

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