Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Four Laws and Four Phases of Career Life

In today’s world of increased longevity, the career span for a typical talented executive has significantly extended. As a result, the new generation could be expected to have a long career span of five decades, from 25 to 75 years of age. Compared to the current and older generations who coasted along the career paths (retiring at a ripe young age of 55 or 58 years!), the new generation has the aggression and aspiration to shape their careers in an accelerated manner (without resting till they reach the young ripe age of 70 or 75 years!), and that too more by design than by default. This new trend is, in turn, shaped by the new generation’s quest (and the parental pressures) for joining elite institutions and premium courses to leverage into companies and careers of potential high net-worth in future. This has led to a phenomenon of rapid and early career burnout in most other cases, leading people short of the opportunities of a career marathon.

With a bit of philosophical reasoning, external awareness and candid introspection, one would surmise that in life, the law of averages would eventually work out, coincidentally again in most cases. There are, in fact, four laws that govern career life, understanding of which would provide an appropriate perspective to appreciating the long term realities of career life. Once these realities are appreciated, it would be possible to look at a more orderly and structured progression of career life. Hinduism prescribes four stages of life to a typical male.  Shakespeare has formulated 7 stages of life in his play “As you like it”. This blog post hypothesizes four stages of life for career aspirants so that the new generation can face the corporate life with equality and stability. But, first the four laws of organizational life need to be appreciated.
The four pyramidal laws
The first law of organizations is the Law of Pyramids. Whatever the nomenclature and color given to the structural dispensations of organizations, the enduring law is that any organization is a pyramid in terms of departments and people. In fact, the typical organization tends to be several pyramids within a master pyramid. Each time, one reaches the apex of a pyramid (read, department) he or she will find that that place is, in fact, the bottom of another pyramid. The second law of organizations is the Law of Slippery Walls. Like pyramids which offer no easy steps or holds to climb, organizational pyramids also offer no easy way to climb to the top. The path is steep and slippery, almost inevitably.
The third organizational law is the Law of Multiple Climbers. This law teaches that even if one is fortuitous to be alone on the climb on one’s side of the wall, there would inevitably many climbers from the other sides of the pyramid (read, sections, departments or businesses in place of walls, depending upon which level of pyramid one is trying to perch oneself onto!). The fourth organizational law is the Law of Spiked Chair.  This law, which is the most profound of the four laws, can only be experienced and not taught. It states that if one is able to climb up the pyramid with one’s diligence and persistence, and fair amount of luck, one will find the apex far too sharp and spiked to afford any chance of comfortable stay. Unfortunately, there would be no honorable climb-down either.
Whoever reaches the apex of the ultimate pyramid would, no doubt, wonder why at all he or she has aspired for, and worked towards, reaching the apex of the organizational pyramid. However, like everyone despairs about life looking at others’ travails (be it studies, jobs or marriage) but goes through exactly the same rigmarole, members of organizations go through the motions of multiple pyramid climbing with great zeal and application. Those who understand the four laws in a philosophical perspective would, however, be in a state of equanimity to understand and pass through structured career phasing.     
Four phases of life
Hinduism classifies one’s life in terms of four phases or stages, each being called “ashrama”. The first stage is the “brahmacharya” or the “student” stage. The second stage is the “grihastha” or the “householder” stage. The third stage is the “vanaprastha”  or the “hermit” stage. The third and final stage is the “sanyasa” or the “ascetic” stage.  Without going into the full details of what each stage is expected to involve in a classic Hindu way, it would be sufficient for this blog post to understand the basic purposes of each of the four stages of life.
The student stage is a period of formal education. It lasts until the age of 25, during which, the young male seeks to attain, under a famed guru, both spiritual and practical knowledge. During this period, he is prepared for his future profession, as well as for his family. This is a phase wherein the greatest dedication and application is expected of the young learner.
The second period of householder begins when a man gets married, and undertakes the responsibility for earning a living and supporting his family. At this stage, Hinduism supports the pursuit of wealth as a necessity, and indulgence under certain defined social and cosmic norms. This ashrama lasts until around the age of 50. However, given the rigours of the subsequent two stages, the second stage virtually lasts a lifetime these days!
 The third stage of a man begins when his duty as a householder comes to an end: his children are grown up, and have established lives of their own. At this age, he should renounce all pleasures, retire from his social and professional life, leave his home, and go to live in a forest hut, spending his time in prayers. This kind of life is indeed very harsh. No wonder, this third ashrama is now nearly obsolete.
In the fourth and final stage, a man is supposed to be totally devoted to God. He is a “sanyasi”, he has no home, no other attachment; he has renounced all desires, fears and hopes, duties and responsibilities. He is virtually merged with God, all his worldly ties are broken, and his sole concern becomes attaining moksha, or release from the circle of birth and death. (Suffice it to say, very few can go up to this stage of becoming a complete ascetic.)
Four career ashramas
Given that the career span of the talented new generation is tending to be five decades long, one may hypothesize four distinct phases, which have similar intentions and applications as in progression of life. In the first phase, or the first decade of the career (say, age, 25 to 35 years) which may be called the development phase the incumbent must, irrespective of prior education and background, be focused on learning. The first phase represents the golden phase to master the products, processes, domains and businesses of a corporation. The more one learns, and applies the knowledge as one learns, the stronger will be the foundations of one’s career. And the stronger the foundation, the bigger and taller can be the superstructure. It is also important to secure the right guru or mentor during the learning phase.
The second phase, which corresponds to the householder phase, is the real career building phase. This phase or the second decade and half of the career (say, 35 to 50 years) represents the period of bounty to generate wealth for the corporation, and also simultaneously stabilize professional and personal life balance by providing peace and prosperity to the family. This is the phase when the aspirant needs to bring out all his energy and enthusiasm to lead and manage teams, climb up the slippery pyramids and reach to positions of substance. At the end of the phase, the career aspirant would have typically arrived.
The third phase, which corresponds to the hermit phase, is the stage when one brings one’s experience and wisdom to become a leader, who is expected to lead from the top. This stage, corresponding to 50 to 65 years of age, is one where the incumbent starts becoming increasingly lonely, with both his competitor groups and partner groups becoming thinner. As a hermit discovers truth through prayers, the leader in this phase discovers the larger purpose of leading an organization, which is beyond professional growth or personal riches. The truth as one would understand in this phase is to satisfy multiple stakeholders and craft an executable vision.
The fourth phase, which corresponds to the ascetic stage, is represented by the last 5 to 10 years of career life (say, 65 to 70 or 75 years of age). Clearly, this phase represents one of organizational “nirvana” for a leader. This is the phase wherein highly capable leaders become non-executive chairmen of corporations or become advisers and mentors to a wide spectrum of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. They start looking for leaders who would fulfill or improve upon their legacy. Those in the first phase of learning could ideally lock themselves to mentors of the fourth phase to establish the right “parampara”.
Journey, not the destination
As one grapples with the four pyramidal laws, and undertakes the rollercoaster ride through the four phases, reaching in the process the narrow and sharp apex, one understands that the journey of organizational life is more important than the destination itself. Some, if not all, would muse that the fortune of satisfied life tended to be more at the bottom of the pyramid rather than at the top. If only there would be a way for the young career aspirants to fast-track themselves through the organizational time machine to simulate and assimilate the philosophical learning, there would be an opportunity for them to savor the journey of corporate growth through contributions each day, rather than waiting to occupy the sharp peak to make an elusive impact. For most people, an incremental contribution each day, from the very first day of a five decade career could be more rewarding than the aspiration of creating a stunning impact at the helm, decades later.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on December 29, 2012


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