Illustration: Angela De La Vega


Why not having a career plan will get you far 

In the changing world of work, being open to opportunity is now more important than knowing where you’re heading, discovers Clare Thorp

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By Clare Thorp on

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Where do you see yourself in five years' time? No idea? Then you’re in good company. Because, while for decades that question haunted every job interview and made us feel like success hinged on having our career meticulously mapped out, the world of work is changing.

Five-year plans and linear progression are being replaced with something more fluid: the curvy career path. Post-recession, the average person spends 50 years at work and, as a result, can expect to have many jobs, and even several careers, over the course of their working life.

A consequence of this is that the idea of a "job for life" now seems obsolete. Indeed, there is now a new school of thought that we should all be starting to look at our careers differently.

“We are seeing more people who aspire to have a career filled with different experiences, rather than a singular aspiration to climb the ranks as quickly as possible,” says Maggie Stilwell, EY’s managing partner for talent in the UK and Ireland. “As a result, they seek new opportunities and chances to develop new skills.”

“People seeking curvy career paths are more comfortable with the fact that their career may progress in ebbs and flows, rather than in a straight-line upwards. They acknowledge there will be times you might want to take a back seat, and also times you want to explore a different direction."

Here, four women who have found success by forging their own curvy career paths explain how not having a plan is now the best thing you can do.


“I graduated from UCL with a degree in information and business management and the idea that I should get a ‘proper job’ — but no real clue exactly what I wanted to focus on. I joined EY’s graduate programme as a consultant in advisory and got some great advice early on from a woman I worked with. She told me that people often spend a lot of time focusing on climbing the tree, then get to the top and realise that they’re on the wrong tree.

“After a couple of years, I didn’t feel ready to commit to any department — but knew I wanted to try something more people-focused. After spending time in the learning  and development team, I took a secondment in a team called EYX, which focuses on how our business and clients can benefit from disruptive technology. It was out of my comfort zone — but I learnt so much. I’ve now moved back to advisory and am working on an initiative exploring the idea of self-disruption and innovating our business. 

"I’ve never had too much of a long-term mindset. For me, it’s about the experiences I’m getting from each role, the people I’m working with and the breadth of skills I’m learning. I’ve now found an area where I’ve managed to pull together all of the various elements and skills I’ve learnt, and feel really satisfied with what I’m doing. By moving around, I’ve built a huge and invaluable network within EY. I’ve also learnt not to be scared of anything that isn’t 100 per cent familiar, but to jump in and give it a go instead.” Francesca Lavey, 28, manager at EY


“I worked my way through a number of different companies and roles before figuring out what I wanted to do. I started in accountancy, then worked in sales for a chocolate company and marketing for an alcohol brand. I left to start my own marketing company, but still wasn’t 100 per cent happy. Working for myself was one piece of the puzzle, but it was only after I had my son that I realised I had a real interest in people who had dropped out of the workforce, whether because of children, illness or caring responsibilities — and how flexible working can help with that. That’s where the idea for The Hoxby Collective came from.

"We curate teams of freelancers to work on projects and the breadth of talent we have working for us is inspiring. One women does upholstery one day a week, teaches on another and then freelances for us. Career trajectories and education paths are changing. People are more open to trying different things now.

"I think the more things you do, the more rounded you are as an individual. It makes you more confident in the choices you’ve made because you know you’ve tried other things and didn’t like them as much. You also have much more of a contextual understanding of whatever you’re doing because you can bring different perspectives.

"At the moment, I feel like I want to do this for ever, but I’ve got an open mind because I think we all change over the course of our lives and our career choices should change with that.” Lizzie Penny, 35, CEO of The Hoxby Collective


"I now work as MD of a digital agency that’s all about innovation, but my path into tech wasn't a traditional one. I earned a master's in archaeology and started my career working in the arts, in museums and auction houses.

"I fell into my first role in tech, as an account director at a telecoms business, but immediately found the sector exciting. I worked my way up in a big mobile-phone company, before going to a digital agency and becoming MD.

"Not having a plan is perhaps not what a careers adviser might suggest, but it allows you to work on your strengths and learn from the many — and there will be many — varied mistakes you make along the way. You can work out other passions as you go and your working life will organically grow and evolve. If I had planned everything and stuck to it, I could have missed something in my career that was a natural fit for me.

"Following a path because you think it's safe isn’t always a good plan. Not only could you end up doing something you hate, but your CV may end up one-dimensional, leaving you stuck. There is no such thing as a job for life now, so being flexible and gaining skills from all walks of life is crucial to success." Rachel Grigg, 39, managing director of digital agency Voodoo Park


“At the age of 25, I was working as the editor of a radio-station website. I had a pension, shares in the company, had been given a spot on the management team and thought that I had a job for life. Then I was made redundant and all of that fell apart.

"I’ve never had a full-time job since. I fell into working in PR for a film festival, then booked a one-way ticket to Vancouver, where I spent 18 months freelancing. After returning home to Manchester, I knew I wanted to set up my own business, one that would fit around having a family, which I did — with no real business plan!

"Ironically, after getting this far without a plan, I now have one: to finish and publish a children's book I’m working on. For me, as for many of my peers, we’re always looking for the next thing. To the outside world, it makes you look like you’re not satisfied. But, to me, it’s just that life is short and that there are lots of things that I want to achieve, try and see.” Helen Dugdale, 42, founder of Scribble PR and writing agency


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Illustration: Angela De La Vega
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