January 2024  -  Research Express

Jos Akkermans Talks About his Research on Career Success

Jos Akkermans is an Associate Professor of Sustainable Careers and Organizational Behavior at the School of Business and Economics of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

In this first edition of Research Express, Disrupt Your Career speaks with Jos Akkermans about his research on what makes a career successful. An edited version of our conversation with Jos follows.

Why is this topic important? What question or problem were you trying to solve in your research?

Career success is the number one career outcome, and it’s also been the most popular and the most central concept studied in the field of career studies. So why is it important? In the end, career success is what people strive for, and it can also help people become even more successful or have sustainable careers. The questions that we started this paper with – because it’s a critical review paper – are: let’s look at all the literature we have, which is a lot, and let’s ask does this still align with today’s world of work? If we look at all the research we have, what do we really know about what career success is, how you can achieve it, and whether there might be opportunities and gaps that we can still explore to advance the field even further.

What are the main findings and/or thesis of your research?

I think there are four main findings to highlight here. The first one is that one of the statements we make is that it’s wonderful that if you look at the Career Success literature that in the past 10-15 years, we’ve made a lot of progress to understand the subjective side of things. Before we would just say: here’s career satisfaction, now we’ve measured subjective career success. We’ve come up with a much more differentiated idea now thinking of the impact that people make with their careers, the social connections they forge, the meaningfulness of the work they do. That’s a really good thing. At the same time, we also see that we tend to forget about the objective side of things. It’s almost sometimes as if it’s wrong to say, “I just want to make money”, which is a very valid outcome. So the objective side of career success, like the promotions you make in a career, the salary you earn in a career, the status you obtain. That’s the first kind of main finding: let’s have a more balanced view where we look at both, because both are critical to really understand career success.

The second one is that we say: at this point let’s consolidate what we have, instead of coming up with even more new ideas. This is especially true about the concepts. This applies to subjective career success itself. We now have a pretty comprehensive set of indicators, let’s consolidate those let’s research those instead of coming up with even more new frameworks. And it also applies to the predictors. So for example, there is a huge literature on career capital, career competencies, career resources, career preparedness, and all of them converge on the same basic underlying idea of developing certain knowledge, skills and ability to develop a successful career. So instead of coming up with even more, let’s actually see how different they really are. And let’s consolidate how predictive they are of career success.

So the first two are kind of provocations, and then we have two more suggestions for future research that align very closely with my personal interests as well.  The first one is that we said: we should also start studying career success from a slightly broader career sustainability perspective. Yes, it’s about the productivity element, it’s about being successful and doing your work well. But it’s also about the other two indicators of a sustainable career, which are besides productivity, happiness and health. If we have these long, turbulent careers, we should not only be good at what we’re doing, but we should generally also enjoy what we’re doing, and we should be able to keep it up, both mentally and physically.

The final one, and this again will be no surprise to anyone who knows my work, we say: we’ve looked a lot at the predictive side of things, so we know all kinds of competencies and behaviors that predict career success, what about (and it’s fitting with the name of this podcast) the disruptions? What about, as we call them, the career shocks that happen to everyone? I’ve asked thousands of people this question. No one has ever said “My career has gone exactly as I planned when I started it”. So we know that career shocks matter, and we call for more research to integrate these shocks into research on career success.

How can these ideas be applied – for an individual or for an organization?

One of the major parts of the article discusses all kinds of predictors of career success. If we know what predicts career success, it helps to become successful. In that sense, I think it’s directly helpful to know what has research shown to be the main kind of sets of predictors of career success, both objective and subjective career success. If we break it down to practical applications, and I will mention three main things that I also briefly discussed in the TED talk that you mentioned in the introduction, they are different levels. There’s one more macro level application, one more meso, and one primary micro application. Let’s go through them from top to bottom.

At the societal level, or the policy level maybe, we still see that there are differences in career success, for example, related to gender and ethnicity. The research generally shows that, for example, women and men feel equally successful, so the subjective elements of career success are actually quite similar. But the salary gap still exists. So the objective side of things, in terms of getting to that high level in the organization’s, of getting the promotions, getting the salary, there’s still a clear difference between men and women. This is not something you or me can change while we’re at work, but at a policy level, at a more societal level, this is something that we could and we should fix. Because it makes no sense that if you and I do the same job, I get more money than you do. That’s one more macro level implication.

At meso level, the implication is that we do know that some of career success is also political. It is in the kind of intangible stuff that happens in organizations. For example, one of the popular models is the sponsored versus contested mobility perspective. In a nutshell, it says sponsored means if you know the right people, if you have a good mentor, you will be successful. And the contested mobility perspective says work hard, and you’ll be successful. There’s a lot of research evidence showing that the sponsored mobility path does apply if you want to be successful. That’s why I call it political. It means if the person deciding on the promotion likes you, if you have a mentor who has a lot of influence informally, or maybe even formally in an organization, those things could help you become successful. Again, like the first one, this is not something you and I can immediately use ourselves to become more successful, but if you know this is the case, you can be a bit strategic about it. And if as an organization this is the case, you can reevaluate your talent management or HR practices and think: How can we make this more fair, and also think about the equity of things? Because on the one hand, you can say, if this is a political thing, play the political game. But there are some ethical concerns there, of course, because if you’re a better performer than I am, but I’m a good networker, I don’t know how fair it is that I would get the promotion.

Then the final one, and this is a very hopeful message: Hard work does pay off. The contested mobility perspective also has a lot of research support, and we do see that people who work hard, who invest in developing their knowledge, skills and abilities will become good at what they do. It typically does lead to career success. So developing these career competencies, for example, becoming employable, these are all factors that  –  and it’s not to say that if you invest in them, you will always be successful – but generally, we see a very strong positive relationship between those two.

Read Jos personal homepage https://www.josakkermans.com

Watch Jos’ TEDx Talk VU Amsterdam: What makes a career successful?

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