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Break Out of Your Job-Imposed Limitations: Ask New Questions, Get Answers, and Grasp New Opportunity

I’ve often met talented people who left Italy to come to the United States in search of better career opportunities. It was hard for me to grasp why Italian-Americans decided to leave a beautiful land filled with culture until I visited Venice.

It seems as if everyone who comes to Venice wants to ride in a gondola, something they have seen others do in movies and on television. The experience looks remarkably romantic and relaxing, based on observing a handsome, colorfully clad gondolier singing beautifully while he gently poles the gondola along small waterways that pass under quaint walking bridges.

Arriving in Venice, I was struck that the reality was quite different than what I expected. Most of the gondolas are tied up on the major waterways in Venice rather than on small ones, and passing motorized boats often cause the gondolas to bob up and down more than anyone would like. The water also doesn’t smell very nice during the warm weather.

The price of taking a brief trip in a gondola is so high that it can increase your appreciation for walking over those charming bridges and riding on the inexpensive and ever-present water buses.

When I asked a gondolier why he chose to tie up at a spot where there were few people walking by who might hire him, he shrugged and explained that the moorings were handed down from father to son. He had no choice but to use the mooring that he had inherited.

I asked if he had ever considered doing something else for a living. He said that he had, but that option would have been viewed as traitorous for an only son to abandon the family’s mooring because someone in the next generation would miss the chance to be a gondolier.

Because of the high prices charged by the gondoliers, they don’t have much business. As a result, they spend a lot of time alone . . . possibly cursing their fates unless being a gondolier is what they really want to do to earn a living.

Before you look down in judgment on that circumstance, first consider how much your work circumscribes what you can expect to learn, accomplish, and experience.

Upon thinking about job-related limits, I was immediately reminded of a visit to Dell Corporation’s operations in Round Rock, Texas. For many years, the company experienced extremely rapid growth. On the trip I was curious to learn about how the growth was accomplished without forcing the people to reach beyond their capabilities.

Our host explained that at Dell the management philosophy was to make each job proportionally smaller in scope as the overall company’s size grew. Thus, someone who started out handling a single aspect of the national activities for the company’s operations would eventually handle just a small portion of that original aspect.

When the aspect couldn’t be sliced any finer, the person might instead handle the last, finest slice for just a geographic part of a country. And in time, the part of the country being served would become smaller and smaller.

If I overlay the Dell approach onto the gondolier’s situation, it would be as if customers progressively asked the gondolier to do less and less. At some point, he might be only helping people in and out of the gondolas rather than providing the whole service. While the Dell approach is great for handling growth, it can be stultifying for the people whose jobs become smaller and smaller in scope as the company’s size increases.

If you stick with the same career path, you will usually find that the range of issues that you are asked to address becomes narrower and narrower. At some point the only difference between you and the newest employee is that you have more experience. How much is that experience worth if the scope you apply it to is quite small? Not very much. As a result, many older employees have trouble retaining their jobs.

What can you do instead? I was very impressed when I recently learned about how Mr. Lionel Delbart, an MBA graduate, expanded the range of his working knowledge and skills in recent years. As I considered his career, I could clearly see a way out for people who find themselves in an overly circumscribed, ever-narrowing job in an increasingly specialized industry where little differentiation seems to be possible.

Let me tell you a little about Mr. Delbart’s career before examining the universal principles that you should follow. His parents were French, but they developed such a love for Switzerland that they emigrated to there while he was still a youngster.

After completing his compulsory education in Switzerland, he earned a Capacity Certificate as an Electronic Engineer through completing a technical apprenticeship. At the time, he was interested in having a technical career related to Information Technology (IT) development and maintenance.

Within two years, Mr. Delbart was hired to work for Switzerland’s postal and telecommunications monopoly enterprise (Post, Telegraph and Telecommunications). He earned a telecommunications certificate while working there by taking courses offered by the company.

Wanting to improve his capabilities, he soon supplemented his on-the-job learning with evening courses in telecommunications and IT engineering. After qualifying in that work, he began taking management courses so that he could learn to lead more effectively, studies that culminated in a diploma that is the equivalent of an executive MBA degree.

Mr. Delbart’s management qualifications help him to gain a position as Head of Operations for switches used in mobile communications. When the monopoly service was broken up to allow for competition, his employer became a limited company and he rose through the ranks to become first Head of Operations and later Head of Operations and Engineering, designing many of the processes for this mobile carrier, Swisscom.

Next, he left Swisscom to join a new mobile vendor, Orange CH, which allowed him the opportunity to help build a company from scratch. Seeking even more variety and scope for his career, he joined with a partner to launch a Web design firm.

When Mr. Delbart’s job at Orange CH became redundant, he was hired as Head of Support for Transport Publics Genevois, a private company providing transport facilities to the public. In this role he drew on his excellent experience in merging IT operations to improve the structure of his new employer’s IT department.

At this point, a headhunter lured him into taking a new position with the second leading mobile communications company in Switzerland, Sunrise. He now serves as the Senior Manager there for deployment of the Global System for mobile communications.

Not satisfied with these challenges, Mr. Delbart has also served for three years as the chair for a charity business that is operated by 200 volunteers to provide for needy Swiss people.

Having learned about the value of an MBA program from a colleague, he next began studying at Rushmore University, where he focused on the theory and practice of marketing, sustainable development, the Internet, and IT. He found ways to immediately apply the new knowledge he gained from courses to his work assignments.

An unexpected benefit of his MBA program was learning how to be more effective in researching and understanding new subjects on his own, making it easier for him to continue his education after graduating. Mr. Delbart also gained perseverance, discipline, rigor, and writing skill from his studies.

Receiving the degree opened the doors to new career opportunities, such as being qualified to serve in the demanding role of a corporate director, improving his effectiveness as a consultant through better analysis and conceptualization, and being seen as qualified for positions of higher responsibility in large organizations.

As you can see from this story, Mr. Delbart has continually sought to add knowledge of new disciplines, new types of tasks, new roles, and new industries. Instead of his knowledge becoming narrower and shallower, his perspective and credibility are becoming broader and deeper.

What principle might you use to follow such a similar path? I suggest this one: No matter what your background and role are today, prepare for tomorrow as though you want to become CEO of one of the largest and most responsible organizations in the world. Whether or not you ever have that kind of opportunity, you will become well prepared to take on exciting new roles and to be more successful at the older ones.

Donald W. Mitchell is a professor at Rushmore University, an online graduate school, where he often teaches mid-career professionals who want to expand the scope of their professional lives to enjoy their work more through earning MBA, DBA, and Ph.D. degrees. For more information about ways to engage in fruitful lifelong learning at Rushmore to increase your effectiveness and improve your career, visit .