I often think the word “linear” simply means a straight line, but it also refers to items in a sequence. While some jobs do have a specific path for progression or education (think: doctor, judge, architect), many careers do not follow a sequence. It’s less common for an employee today to follow that straight line.

Although there are traditional training career paths, which will be discussed in a moment, training careers can fall into the nonlinear category. Training professionals often make pivots and, to use a hiking term, take switchbacks — whether intentional or not — along the way. This can create a unique resume.

As Sheryl Sandberg, former chief operating officer of Meta and founder of LeanIn stated, “If I had mapped out my career … I would have missed it.” Formal education programs are a recent development to prepare individuals for corporate training roles. Although K-12 programs have a long history of formal education options, programs designed to train adults are still evolving. Training programs now exist within a broader human resources (HR) degree, but there are also standalone programs related to educational leadership, technology and learning design. However, not all training professionals have formal training.

So, what are the possible roles within a training career? I categorize them into four areas:

    1. Instructional designer (ID): IDs use the source material to design the content in an engaging, effective final deliverable.
    2. Facilitator or trainer: Trainers are the “face” of the content and must understand how to transfer the knowledge to the learner.
    3. Support functions:
      • Coordinators provide administrative support. They may send out completion reports to managers on assigned training, provide certificates to learners or submit continuing education credits for professional certifications.
      • Analysts focus on the metrics and reporting that show the value and return on investment (ROI) of training. They work with raw data, usually gathered from learning platforms.
      • System administrators are in the systems (learning management system (LMS) or the learning experience platform (LX)) every day, adding new courses, uploading SCORM files and managing registrations and cancellations.
    1. Leaders (team lead, manager, director, vice president, chief learning officer): The leader in a training function is responsible for the strategy, thought leadership, team structure, direction, budget, system selection/ownership and project management of the team’s output.

There could be any combination of these roles on a team. There may be a combined ID/trainer role — someone who designs the training and then delivers it. Or there may be a manager who is also a facilitator. Another common role is a single support person who fills all the roles to support training. Each of these roles can lead to a nonlinear training career.

The nature of the training team can also spur a nonlinear training career path. Is it a training team of one, responsible for all the tasks above? Or is it a brand-new training function for a department or company?

Where the training team sits within an organization can also create opportunities for a nonlinear training career. Do they report to HR directly, or are they independent (as a peer to HR)? Are they part of a larger support team (such as legal or marketing), or are they decentralized and sit within a functional area?

A switchback, or pivot, can also evolve from training-adjacent experience. Here are some examples:

    • Pivoting from a functional team — subject matter expert (SME): This professional might create great presentations or write processes in a way that others could follow or help onboard new employees or have strong public speaking skills
    • Transitioning from a K-12 teacher to a corporate training role.
    • Shifting from another HR specialty, such as a recruiter or HR business partner (HRBP).
    • Working with the L&D team on the periphery, then developing an interest in the work.
    • Converting a niche side gig to a traditional corporate position.

The Value of a Nonlinear Career

In today’s complex talent environment with widening skills gaps and talent shortages, organizations that are open to employees with diversified skill sets are more likely to fill critical roles. Fortunately, this is a great time to have a nonlinear career. Those seemingly disparate roles and accomplishments can demonstrate capabilities that are unique to you and your value proposition.

Determining how to discuss your nonlinear career path in a job interview is an important consideration. You should anticipate questions about how your past experiences are relevant to the role. Discuss how your specific history is an advantage. Sketch out a career profile that tells a comprehensive story. For example, a benefit to the organization of your transition from sales to training is you can anticipate the types of challenges the sales team might have when discussing a new product line with potential clients.

A nonlinear career can take many paths, including a lateral job change, promotion into a different team or role or a demotion. When Michelle Gass was CEO of Kohl’s, she took the role of president at Levi Strauss, effectively taking a demotion in title if not scope. But she recognized the intended outcome — to become CEO of Levi Strauss as part of a succession plan — was worth it. She understood the big picture and was willing to take the risk. Remember that nonlinear careers happen at all stages of a career, from entry level to the highest executive role.

How to Maximize Your Nonlinear Career

When you realize you have a nonlinear training career, here are some considerations for how to ensure your success and maximize your nonlinear career:

    • Understand (or find) your passion. Do some self-reflection to know what will make you most satisfied in your career and figure out how to make that happen — even if it doesn’t initially make sense on paper.
    • Think about the functional experiences you’ve had (or will have) that will help you build your knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) in the key area you are interested in. Be creative when you analyze how things might correlate. You may even identify some new strengths that could directly relate to a role in training.
    • Maximize your exposure to new opportunities. Raise your hand to join a cross-functional workgroup or visit your company’s training department. Ask if you can shadow someone in training and ask questions about their journey to their current role. If you can’t shadow someone in person or virtually, set up an informational interview instead.
    • Say yes. Create and accept stretch (growth) assignments to learn more.
    • Consider lateral moves. Find ways to diversify your experiences, related to organization types, sizes and industries.
    • Reflect on trainings you’ve attended/completed. Document what you’ve observed. For example, what are the different roles in the classroom, what design elements worked and what didn’t, what types of activities were used to help transfer the knowledge to the learners, and what assessment methods truly identified if learning happened.

Realize that your skills may not fit the job description for a given role, but you can capitalize on universal skills, which are transferable. Look for any opportunities to build relationships within your organization. In addition, leverage LinkedIn and other networking opportunities, including joining (and actively participating) in industry professional organizations.

Embracing a nonlinear training career requires that you take some risks. You will also need to fail forward. You may stumble, but that’s ok. Learn from those stumbles and apply what you’ve learned. Although you may have a nonlinear path, you can own your career development. Create your own learning plan so you can decide what your next step looks like and find a way to get there.

Just remember not to get trapped by a career plan you created years ago — because things change! In fact, the history of the word “career” is from the 16th century and essentially means a road. Back then, a career was expected to be a straight path from A to B. Promotions and/or a raise aren’t the only indicators of success. It can have twists and turns. In fact, those twists and turns can ultimately give you the best competitive advantage because they give you diverse experiences to build off.

Allow your vast knowledge, side gigs, stretch assignments, random interests and failures to prepare you for each level of success in your training career. The nonlinear training career can provide you with the challenges and successes you are seeking.