As the idea of a ‘job for life’ fades into the past, individuals are left with the prospect of having to transition between roles and employers more frequently. Unfortunately, these transitions can be complex, stressful and traumatic. Whether these work transitions are upward, sideward, within the same organisation or not, they typically entail not only practical change (building new relationships for instance), but require a mental shift for the individual concerned. Indeed, our research findings suggest that readjusting to such transitions can take up to 18 months.

Here, drawing upon our research (interviews with 36 business leaders in a large multi-national, who had recently made transitions of their own), we explore how individuals can develop resources (career capital) to support smooth and successful work transitions.

Career capital

Arthur, DeFillippi and Jones (2001) identified that individuals had a particular set of resources or assets that they might take to their work and which formed their ‘career capital’ (if you’re familiar with sociology you’ll probably have come across the notion of capital before). DeFillippi and Arthur (1994) described three types of career capital: ‘Knowing-Why’, ‘Knowing-How’, and ‘Knowing-Whom’.

Figure 1. The three types of career capital

Source: Representation of DeFillippi and Arthur (1994) (Source: Authors’ own)

Being versatile, career capital is valuable for us to understand and use. We can use it to support our career mobility, in other words, our ability to move around between different jobs and employers:

  • Career capital can be used by individuals or organisations: As well as supporting individual growth, for example personal development and career management, organisations can use career capital in areas such as organisational change and talent management;
  • Career capital is context-dependent: In other words, its value varies between contexts. For instance, an individual’s career capital may have a higher value in one situation than another.
  • Career capital may be transported around: Whilst some career capital aspects may be valued in just one situation, other more ‘boundaryless’ aspects can be transferred to new situations, increasing personal mobility;
  • Career capital can be reinvested and grown: Career capital is extendable; it could be invested to generate additional career capital; For instance, an individual may share knowledge with a contact so as to strengthen their relationship.

Our research was interesting in that it allowed us to find out the career capital that leaders used to support their recent internal moves. As well as drawing upon a portfolio of career capital, some aspects were seen as being more critical than others, for example having a positive relationship with a new line manager. Some business leaders even found ways to grow their career capital through the transition.

Introducing Colin

Of our 36 interviews, there was one leader who seemed to leverage his career capital extremely well. For anonymity’s sake, we’ll refer to him as Colin. Colin described how he had made happen a cross-functional move within his organisation.

Colin had identified his own career aspirations, interests, and future needs and personally initiated this cross-team transfer (‘Knowing-Why’). Such an inter-functional team transition was rare in the organisation studied, with only three of the 36 business leaders undertaking such a move. With a challenging previous line manager seeking to retain him, Colin showed tenacity and influence (‘Knowing-How’) to overcome this force and break through this silo-mentality.

Also, his relationship with his new line manager (‘Knowing-Whom’), a key contact within his internal work network, was critical to the success of his transition experience. In particular, his line manager approved the financial investment to pay for Colin to complete a diploma which helped to build further his ‘Knowing-How’ in the form of a formal qualification:

“One of the things that I negotiated was that they had offered to pay for a [diploma]. They said ‘Yes, we will support you.’ I just thought ‘wow!’”    (Colin, interviewee)

Furthermore, Colin’s new line manager represented him well within the executive discussions, which built further his reputation across the business (‘Knowing-Whom’):

“She […] acted as an advocate when we went to the [executive meeting] […] so… [one] of the things was building credibility, and I suppose that may be where building quick wins came from. ‘So how can you build credibility?’ ‘Well let’s have some quick wins’ […] it helped me build credibility in the role and recognition of me in the role.” (Colin, interviewee)

However, not all business leaders had such a positive experience. Some had a torrid time, taking up to 18 months to settle into the new role due to gaps in their career capital portfolio (for example, non-existent technical understanding, lack of stakeholder relationships). This often led to shrinkage of their career capital (for example, erosion of their self-confidence and personal reputation), and on occasions this led to a complete transition failure, with several business leaders subsequently choosing to leave the business.

Leveraging career capital

Learning from this research study, we propose three developmental steps that can help to develop career capital when approaching work transitions.

  • Recognise and Identify: It is critical that individuals take stock of their future career. They need to identify their interests, values, future needs, and ultimately, their career aspirations. They must also recognise that career capital is context-dependent. Without understanding this, career capital cannot be consciously planned and developed. There is a role for organisations to support this.
  • Future-focused: Individuals should think about emerging career capital needs – with consideration for emerging trends, and missing, under-developed or useful career capital aspects needed. Our research found that letting go of low value or obsolete career capital aspects are also important.
  • Targeted and transferable: Individuals should build targeted and transferrable career capital. Having predicted the emerging career capital that will be valued, a focused approach to building career capital can be taken. It will be important to ensure that this will be transferable into different situations and employers within this career field, rather than it being anchored to one particular setting.

Our findings suggest that career capital is a valuable way to conceptualise those resources needed to make successful work transitions. The findings have already been used by the organisation under study to inform their innovative mobility strategy. Both employees and employers may benefit from recognising career capital (particularly worker mobility and organisational agility) and using this to support development efforts (talent management/transition planning).



Cathy Brown is a chartered occupational psychologist, consultant and author, working with individuals, teams and businesses to manage transition and change. She completed her PhD at University of Derby where she researched career mobility.



Tracey Wond is an organisational consultant, writer, and researcher within the Centre for Business Improvement at the University of Derby. She is engaged with a number of leadership and change projects.