How "Career Imprinting" Shapes Leaders
Published: February 7, 2005
Where you work early in your career shapes the kind of leader you become later on, says HBS
. She discusses her forthcoming book,
Career Imprints: Creating
Leaders Across an Industry
We all know the importance of mentors and other early career experiences in shaping the kind of
leaders we ultimately become. But how important to that development are the particular
companies we work for?
For Harvard Business School professor Monica Higgins, who has studied the career histories of
top biotech managers, companies leave an imprint of their worldview on young executives
through such things as the firm's structure, strategy, and culture. There is a GE imprint, an IBM
imprint, a Bain imprint—all of which influence future decision makers.
Understanding these factors, CEOs can analyze their own companies and how they create next-
generation executives. And execs early in their work lives should use this information to think
long and hard about the first companies they join. Says Higgins: "Understanding the conditions
that enhance the strength of an organization's career imprint, such as a strong corporate culture,
should help individuals better evaluate future employers and recognize the ways in which that
first career experience may shape not simply the skills they acquire, but also their assumptions
about how to lead and manage a firm over the long run."
Her new book,
Career Imprints: Creating Leaders Across an Industry
, is scheduled to be
published in April by Jossey-Bass.
What is career imprinting?
Career imprinting refers to the process by which individuals pick up or
cultivate a certain set of capabilities, connections, confidence, and cognition due to their work
experiences at a particular employer.
Career imprints are associated with particular organizations; they derive from patterns in the
career experiences that people share as a result of working at that organization. Therefore, we
can talk about certain capabilities, connections, confidence, and cognition that might be
associated with having worked at GE during a particular point in time—this would be a "GE
career imprint." And, we can compare the career imprints of different organizations during
similar points in time. In my forthcoming book, I compare the career imprints that were
cultivated at different healthcare firms, including Baxter and Abbott, during the 1970s, and I
examine the consequences of this for individuals, firms, and even industries.
Many of us can relate to this idea of career imprinting and think about times in our lives in which
we worked for a company and picked up certain capabilities, connections, confidence, and