Pigeonholing – A tragedy



Way back when I wrote Vision vs Pragmatism I mentioned that:

There is nothing that homo sapiens likes more than to pigeonhole his or her fellows. We tend to take a binary approach to people’s skills. Fred is a visionary, but you wouldn’t want him to run a project. Jane is brilliant at the details, but she doesn’t see the big picture. Perhaps we are more comfortable with the idea that the strength of any colleague is automatically balanced by a weakness; it brings them back down to a reasonable level.

This topic came up again in a follow-on discussion I had with a CIO who had attended the Chase Zander IT Director Forum last week. During this chat, we spoke about the benefit of having a broad set of skills, but recognised that it was not always easy to find roles that allowed a significant number of these to be used.

My thoughts went back to a conversation I had had with a prospective employer a few weeks earlier. In pondering this, as sometimes happens with me, it became somewhat expanded, embellished and took on the form of a scene in a play.
Act II. Scene 1. An office in a major capital.

Prospective employer: So you are a business intelligence person?
The hero: That’s right.
Prospective employer: But you are also involved in change management?
The hero: Yes, I have worked a lot on cultural transformation.
Prospective employer: And it says here that you have also developed and implemented financial and other systems.
The hero: Yes I have done all of that as well.
Prospective employer: And that you were one of the people who ran a start-up organisation.
The hero: Yes I did that, it was a really interesting part of my career.
Prospective employer: Also you have both run multiple IT departments, managing a significant number of staff, and have acted as a one-man-band in internal consulting positions?
The hero: Those are both true assertions, yes.
Prospective employer: And here there is some experience working in Operations, oh and Finance as well. You seem to have got around.
The hero: Well, I have done a lot of different things over the years and managed to be successful in many of them.
Prospective employer: Your CV also mentions strategy development, monitoring budgets, being a trainer and mentoring developing managers..
The hero: Those are all things that I have done it’s true.
Prospective employer: Well this is all very interesting, but I’m not really sure whether you are a business person, an IT expert, or just a Jack-of-all-trades and master of none.
The hero: Well I suppose I have worked more in an IT context than most other things, but those the achievements that I have been most proud of have crossed multiple areas.
Prospective employer: IT eh? OK I understand that, if you could rewrite your CV along those lines then I’ll have a think about what opportunities we may have in that department..
The hero: Um… OK… I’ll do that. Thank you for your time.
Exit Prospective employer, stage left.
The hero takes centre stage for his big soliloquy.
The hero: IT, or not IT? That is the question…

I had always thought that being pigeonholed was a negative thing to happen to someone. I now know better, it is apparently the key to getting a new job!

Readers are cordially invited to check the date of this blog posting.

20 thoughts on “Pigeonholing – A tragedy

  1. I like this post a lot.

    When the times are good, every executive sings about difficulties with hiring talent.

    Guess what – the way these people go about it outright prevents them from hiring the very talent they are after. Pigeonholing is a sign of incompetence.

      • IT Leadership must grow some more in hiring and retaining talent. Although is true your resume and core competencies should demonstrate your ability to do your Job, a well rounded individual with multiple accomplishment and recognitions from the business should be thought as great fit to Run IT initiatives. The IT workforce must learn we are in business because we learned to resolve Business Problems. Technological solutions must be driven by a Business Problems and presenting someone’s business functional skills should be relevant to the hiring manager looking to Hire and Retain talent.
        We need to educate and enroll others that we must run IT organizations as a Business Unit and develop the workforce to understand how to size business problems and use enterprise Business and Technology integrated solutions. Technology is an enabler and part of the solution. When I coach and mentor IT executive and professionals I look for them to embrace their ability to run IT strategic initiatives embracing both functional and technical core competency.

  2. I like this post as it may be a sign of the times so to speak. I ran into that kind of thinking some 20 years ago. Control is another word for dominate. It changed much later and I was able to take on different roles and learn different things. While that kind of thinking was going on, I stayed in the pegeonhole and took on anything I could get into the pigeonhole that didn’t cause alerts. Maybe that kind of thinking has come back. Perhaps it is more important for ‘people’ to know what you want them to see and not know what you really are.. Now you are not a threat and very stable out of the way in the pigeonhole. Thinking and Doing a wonderful pigeonhole job with your head down. I guess we shouldn’t say ‘Thinking’. I remember. I’ve been in the pideonhole. Shame though. You have so much to offer. I’ve been told I need to sell myself more, but on a single tread.

  3. Hmmm…I always thought it was common sense to tune a CV to the specific appointment one was applying for? HR staff looking to fill a specific role probably aren’t going to be too concerned with what else you can above and beyond that role, unless possibly they have a lot of vacancies at various levels…

    If you’re serious about applying for a job, then surely you take to time to make sure your CV should focus on that job?

    • Simon,

      But the advice is also that you should not have unexplained gaps in your CV and that you should highlight major achievements, particularly where these had significant benefits for your employer. Hard to comply with all the advice you get really.


  4. I’ve heard two opposing points of view from the “experts.” One is that you should tune your resume to each position. The other is that if you are basically applying for the same job (i.e., “Business Analyst”), then you should leave your resume the same and just address different requirements in the cover letter.

  5. Made me smile, as it sounds extremely familiar – and whichever aspect you (re) focus your CV on, the next time around you’ll get burnt by another.

    — send CV focused more on some of the ‘transferable” business skills and experience to match job requirements description —

    “The client’s not sure whether you have the depth of technology expertise they want for this job”

    — rejig CV and send more technology-enhanced CV next time —

    “The client loved that you have all this technological expertise, but they are not sure you have the leadership and management maturity they need”

    — get annoyed and do large CV which covers everything —

    “Your CV is too long, you need to hide some of it and focus more on one aspect”

    What are we to do?

    Pretty much if you are a very competent/capable person and have been in medium entreprises (or like me involved in startups -internal and independent- and turnarounds), you have acquired a lot of different expertise. And it is expertise, not only of technology and technology management but anything from marketing to product launches to finance to people, to change management etc.

    And that should be immensely valuable to any company, but in the current climate everyone goes “prudent”, and wants nicely square people to hire (people you can never be asked “why did you hire them when all we needed was …”)

    I am amazed, really, since in the current climate where a lot of changes will be needed, it seems to me people that have no box are exactly what is needed

  6. Peter – I love this post. I left my last corporate job because I felt like I was getting pigeon holed as a trainer, but felt like I was much more capable of doing a lot of other things. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with a lot of new experiences but now I can’t seem to land a job because I’m not really this and I’m not really that. It’s quite frustrating. Doesn’t being highly capable, smart, a risk taker, a quick and avid learner count for anything?

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