When times get rough, look to your anchor

No job is perfect.  There will always be times when there are turbulence, uncertainty and dissatisfaction.  So, what decides whether you stay to ride them out or jump ship?

The answer is career anchors, those aspects of a job or career that are motivating to you.  They keep you in the job you are in during the challenging times, and when you do change paths, they are what you look for in your new role.  If you can identify the type of career person you are, you can understand more about what will motivate you and give you job satisfaction.

In this blog, we look at why they are important and start to explore different types of anchors that are common in different career types.

The importance of anchors

Once you understand your own anchors – and it will differ according to your career type – it will make it an easier task to make decisions about where your career goes.  Once you know what you are looking for, you are less likely to be tempted by more superficial incentives. 

Professor Edgar Schein of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed the concept of career anchors.  He classified eight career types and the anchors that drive the people drawn to them.  A career type can span many types of industry – it is the nature of the job that categorises it. Below we summarise the eight career types and look at what motivates them in the three key areas of pay and benefits, promotion and recognition.

Technical or functional competence

This first career type demands technical or functional competence.  People who excel in such jobs derive their satisfaction from implementing their skills, and from being seen as the ‘expert’. Just as a salesperson may discover they have natural sales skills and are motivated by clinching the deal, it could be that a financial expert finds they enjoy unravelling complex investment challenges.  Typically, the anchors for this type of persona include

  • Pay/benefits – they want to be financially rewarded to reflect their skills and education level and will compare their benefits to others in the industry.  Absolute pay is more important than other incentives.
  • Promotion system – they prefer a professional promotional structure
  • Recognition – they value recognition by professional peers – this is worth more than recognition by ‘uninformed’ superiors.  The chance for continued learning or self-development is highly regarded as a reward.

General management

These people view specialisation as restricting.  They seek to be responsible for overall policy decisions, being driven by the necessity to know multiple functional areas and to be an expert in the business or industry they are in.   To be motivated, they need high levels of responsibility and will align their personal success to that of the company.  Their key skills include a high level of competence in multiple areas such as analysis, interpersonal and emotional skills.  Anchors for this group include

  • Pay/benefits – pay levels are extremely important, they expect high pay levels but are more likely to compare their pay with internal, rather than external, peers.  Great retirement benefits are important, and they respond well to stock options
  • Promotion system – for managerially anchored people, promotion must be based around merit, performance and results.
  • Recognition – the crucial form of recognition is promotion to a position with more responsibility, bigger budgets, a larger team.  Regular promotion is important as they will assume they are not performing well if not recognised in this way.


These people like to plough their own furrow.  Procedures, fixed working hours, formal dress codes – all these things frustrate them. And they find organisational structures and processes restrictive.  While most people like some level of autonomy, for these people the drive for it overrides everything else.  They tend to favour consulting or teaching, or if working within an organisation, areas where they have a great deal of independence such as R&D or IT.

  • Pay/benefits – performance-based pay, immediate payoffs, one-off bonuses – these drive the autonomous anchored person.  The thought of being tied to long term benefits horrifies them.  Portable benefits are most appealing.
  • Promotion system – promotions need to reflect their achievements, with each new job giving a great level of independence than the last.  More responsibility can be counter-productive to this type of person. For example, a field sales executive who thrives on managing their own day will not enjoy being promoted to a sales manager who needs to spend a lot of time in the office.
  • Recognition – easily portable recognitions such as certificates, awards and testimonials mean more than status or pay.


For this group, the need for security is more than needing to know they can pay their mortgage.   It is a predominant factor throughout the whole of their career and determines all their career choices.  They want a job where they feel safe, where the future is predictable, and they can feel safe.  Government or jobs in the civil service appeal, or well-established organisations with a reputation for job security and generous retirement plans.  This type of person is happy to hand over control of their career to their employers.

  • Pay/benefits – this group needs steady, predictable pay increases, based on their loyalty to their organisation.  Benefits packages based around insurance and pensions work well.
  • Promotion system – a promotion system based on seniority, with published grades and ranks of staff that they can work their way up is what these individuals crave.  They like to see that if they work for five years, they can expect to reach level X, work for 10 and reach level Y.
  • Recognition – above all, this person needs to be recognised for loyalty, they need to believe that their loyalty has made a real difference to their organisation.

Entrepreneurial creativity

We’ve probably all daydreamed at some point about starting up our own business.  Some autonomy/independence anchored people will end up with their own businesses to give them the freedom they crave.  But entrepreneurial anchors differ in that they are driven to do this from a very early age.  It’s not necessarily freedom they seek, but the need to prove they can do it.  These kinds of people tend to have low boredom thresholds, continually looking for new creative challenges.

  • Pay/benefits – ownership is a key issue.  They may not pay themselves much, but want to own patents, own shares.  They may have the drive to become wealthy, but this is more about a way of demonstrating what they have achieved.  Benefits packages do not motivate them.
  • Promotion system – these people need power and freedom to move into key roles that allow creativity
  • Recognition – the size of the business they have built, or the size of their bank account are often the two keys this group seeks recognition for.  They also enjoy public recognition and indulge this by using their own names within the brand of their company.  Some of this group are more private, and happy for the organisation, rather than them as an individual, to be recognised.

Sense of service or dedication to a cause

When the central driver is a need to improve things for others, the anchor is a sense of service or dedication to a cause.  Professions that attract this type of person include nursing, teaching, the church and social work.   Within business management, these people may be drawn to research, public service or the law.  The strong anchors are around working to help other people, helping one’s nation or working for the greater good.

  • Pay/benefits – money is not a key driver, although this group want fair pay.  Portable benefits are most appealing as they may have little loyalty to an organisation.
  • Promotion system – a promotional system that highlights their contribution and moves them into jobs where they can be more autonomous appeals to this group.
  • Recognition -support and recognition from peers and superiors is important.  A feeling of shared values with those above them in the hierarchy is important.

Pure challenge

When overcoming major obstacles drives an employee, their career anchor is pure challenge. These people enjoy solving virtually unsolvable problems, never opting for the comfortable way. Their careers are defined by daily battle or competition in which winning is everything. These employees are persistent and intolerant of anyone not embracing similar goals.  The nature of the work is not important as long as the challenge is there. Professions that attract this type of person include sales and high-level athletes, engineering, strategy consultants, but also general management can appeal due to the variety and challenges it can provide. 

  • Pay/benefits – The ability to show competitive skill is more important than level of pay.  Novelty, variety and difficulty is an end in itself and the only things that matter.
  • Promotion system – motivating these people is a challenge, and as they progress, this group needs ever harder challenges to keep them motivated.  They can be very loyal to companies who give them the freedom to constantly test themselves.
  • Recognition – as the pure challenge anchored thrive on winning and like to triumph, public recognition of their achievements is important.

Lifestyle/work-life balance

Whilst perhaps sounding contradictory – if lifestyle is very important, are they saying their work is less so? – there is a group of people who want a rewarding career whilst being able to integrate it with their lifestyle.  It’s more than balancing work with social life; it’s about finding a way to work than fully integrates the needs of their family, their own needs and their career.  Flexibility is very important.  Having access to part-time work, sabbaticals, working at home, flexible hours are key, and the important thing for this group is the attitude of the organisation.

  • Pay/benefits – flexible benefits far outweigh the actual pay for this group.  A range of benefits that allow them to integrate their outside life with work is essential.
  • Promotion system – whilst being open to career progression, this will only be motivational if it still allows freedoms, and does not, for example, come with a compulsory relocation.
  • Recognition – success to employees with this career anchor, is not defined by career success only but by the way in which they are able to live their lives.

So, there’s plenty of food for thought in this thinking.  If you are struggling to identify your own anchors, try thinking about work differently.  Rather than “I want to work in sales” think about do you want to work with concepts, do you want to help others, do you want to solve challenges?  Turning career thinking around may help you to pinpoint what is important to you.

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