How “Career Imprinting” Shapes Leaders

Where you work early in your career shapes the kind of leader you become later on, says HBS professor Monica Higgins. She discusses her forthcoming book, Career Imprints: Creating Leaders Across an Industry.
by Mallory Stark

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.

Mallory Stark: What is career imprinting?

Monica Higgins: 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 cognition or ways of thinking about the world. Using my own career as an example, having worked at Bain prior to Harvard, I picked up a Bain career imprint that includes the following: capabilities, such as conducting detailed quantitative analyses; connections, such as peer networks and team-based affiliations; confidence, such as learning-based efficacy (or confidence in my ability to learn); and cognition, such as beliefs regarding the appropriate way to structure an organization (flat, team-based). Although I left Bain long ago, I know that Bain's career imprint has traveled with me and affects the way I lead and manage now at Harvard.

Q: What are the conditions that make career imprinting more likely?

A: Since career imprints derive from shared career experiences, career imprinting is more likely to occur when people do indeed have very similar kinds of career experiences at a particular employer. If people are engaged in entirely different kinds of tasks, rendering very few patterns in the kinds of experiences they have, then it would be tough to decipher an organization's career imprint. That being said, just as all organizations have corporate cultures, all organizations cultivate career imprints. The question is simply, what makes some organizational career imprints stronger than others? That's a good question to consider.

Just as all organizations have corporate cultures, all organizations cultivate career imprints.

The strength of career imprinting depends upon both the people a firm hires as well as an organization's environment (factors having to do with people and place). Regarding place, for example, organizations with a strong corporate culture that hire in cohorts are more likely to have strong organizational career imprints. These two factors socially reinforce the kinds of capabilities, connections, confidence, and cognition that people pick up; they enhance the commonality among peoples' experiences and so, strengthen an organization's career imprint.

Regarding people, for example, those who are in early career stages and/or early phases of adult development are more likely to cultivate strongly an organizational career imprint since these are times when people are more impressionable. Further, due to their lack of prior work experience, those in early careers don't yet carry with them other strong career imprints, making it relatively easy to cultivate a "new" organizational career imprint. In addition, career imprinting is likely stronger when there is a good match between people and place. For example, when the firm offers stretch assignments that fit, developmentally, with an individual's needs and interests, he or she is more likely to fully engage themselves at work, strengthening the career imprinting process.

Q: How do the experiences of young executives at Baxter and Abbot Labs illustrate the influential effects that early career history has on the development of leaders?

A: Baxter and Abbott Labs provide a good lens through which to gauge the differential effects of early career imprints on leader development. One reason these two firms make such a good paired comparison is that they were fierce competitors, competing in the area of IV solutions in the 1970s. Another reason is that they were located in similar geographic regions, making the transition of many of these people out of Baxter and Abbott and into east- and west-coast biotech firms, which largely occurred during the early 1980s, about equally (un)likely.

Comparing the career imprints and career paths of people who worked at these two firms shows that those who left Baxter and Abbott to join biotech firms had a differential impact on this new and emerging field of biotechnology. Further, people from these two different firms tended to make different kinds of decisions as leaders once they left these firms to go manage and lead young biotech firms. But before I describe the consequences of cultivating different kinds of career imprints, let's first get a sense of what these two career imprints were.

Career imprints derive from patterns across individuals working at a particular firm during a particular period in time. In my book, I examine the career experiences of people who worked at Baxter and of people who worked at Abbott during the same time frame, the 1970s. In the case of Baxter, during the 1970s, Baxter had a "system" of hiring MBAs in cohorts of ten to fifteen. These young MBAs were generally placed into "assistant to" positions (assisting the head of a division, for example) for a couple of years to learn the business and the company. Soon thereafter, they were sent off to run divisions or countries; many moved overseas where they became general managers. All were given line management experience early on. They were placed into "mini-CEO jobs," as they called them, at a very young age (late twenties). These kinds of career experiences at Baxter yielded patterns in the kinds of capabilities (e.g., line management skills), connections (e.g., ties with international governments), confidence (e.g., learning-based efficacy) and cognition (e.g., an orientation toward bottom line results) they developed. In my book, I describe these patterns in depth and suggest that this combination of "Cs" that constituted Baxter's career imprint could be called an "entrepreneurial career imprint."

In contrast, Abbott careers during this same timeframe fostered more of a "functional career imprint." At Abbott, MBAs and others hired in on a management track were often placed directly into sales positions at Abbott, and then advanced primarily through this particular function. Integration of the different functions of the firm occurred at the top of their divisions (there were four main divisions), rather than in mini-general management positions throughout the firm, as was the case at Baxter. Patterns in the career experiences of budding managers at Abbott yielded a very different set of capabilities (e.g., functional skills, in particular in sales), connections (e.g., ties to hospitals, their customers), confidence (e.g., expertise-based efficacy or confidence in their knowledge of certain products), and cognition (e.g., top-line orientation). In the book, I describe and compare the career experiences of people who went to work for Baxter versus Abbott and suggest that the combination of "Cs" that constituted Abbott's career imprint could be called a "functional career imprint."

Baxter generated a disproportionate number of leaders in the biotechnology industry.

During the early 1980s, when the biotech industry was just heating up and venture capitalists (VCs) were looking for executives to partner with scientists who were starting companies out of academic labs, they looked at different companies as possible breeding grounds for entrepreneurial talent. My research suggests that Baxter's entrepreneurial career imprint most closely matched the worldviews of VCs regarding what was needed at that time to run young biotech firms; and so preferred people coming out of Baxter to those who had worked at Abbott or other firms, such as J&J and Merck. This preference is reflected in the archival data I have collected over the past nine years. I have collected career history information of the approximately 3,200 executives who took biotech firms public between 1979 and 1996; these data show that almost one quarter of these firms had someone on their IPO team who once worked at Baxter. Even after accounting for Baxter's size—Baxter was smaller than firms such as J&J that also spawned executives into biotech—Baxter generated a disproportionate number of leaders in the biotechnology industry.

My research suggests that one important factor that enabled this spawning out of Baxter into biotechnology at the start of the industry was perceptions regarding Baxter's career imprint. Of course, VCs I interviewed didn't use the word "career imprint"; still, what they did point to were important differences in the kinds of capabilities, connections, confidence, and cognition that people developed at these different firms. And these differences affected the kinds of leadership opportunities they were given. As one VC told me, "People coming out of Baxter were more likely to be able to handle the entrepreneurial environment."

In addition to simply taking on more leadership roles in biotech than other firms, such as Abbott, Baxter alumni were also more likely to take on particular types of roles—specifically, management (e.g., CEO) positions. My research suggests that this pattern can be traced to differences in the kinds of career imprints people cultivated at these healthcare firms; thus, different career imprints yielded different kinds of dominant career paths in biotech. For example, people who had worked at Merck and had cultivated Merck's "scientific career imprint" were more likely to take on leadership positions in young biotech firms by sitting on the boards of young biotech firms while holding scientific jobs elsewhere (e.g., Pfizer), placing them in scientific advisory kinds of roles. In contrast, people coming out of Baxter were more likely to take on management positions in these start-up firms, reflecting Baxter's entrepreneurial career imprint. Similar companies, similar locations, similar timeframe, but different career imprints, different career paths.

Finally, if we look at the kinds of decisions these newly minted leaders made post their time at Baxter and at Abbott, we can see how some of their early design choices as leaders of young biotech firms reflect the career imprints of Baxter and Abbott. In the book, I compare the leadership decisions of two leaders—Henri Termeer and Jim Vincent, who left Baxter and Abbott and later became CEOs of two biotech companies, Genzyme and Biogen. This is a useful pair to consider since both of these executives worked at Baxter and Abbott during roughly the same time, 1972 to 1982, and both ran biotech firms located in a similar geographical region, Cambridge, Massachusetts, starting around the same time period, 1983 versus 1985.

In several ways, the early design choices of these two leaders reflected the career imprints they cultivated at their early career employers, Baxter and Abbott. For example, Termeer structured Genzyme, like Baxter, as a highly decentralized organization with many mini-general management positions; in fact, for several years, some Genzyme divisions were so autonomous, they had their own tracking stocks. In contrast, when Vincent was CEO at Biogen, the firm was much more centralized and was organized primarily around functions, reflective of Abbott. Further, like Baxter, Termeer began Genzyme with a focus on niche-oriented markets, such as Gaucher disease, whereas Vincent, like Abbott, went after larger markets like inflammatory diseases. As these examples suggest, early career imprints can affect the kinds of design choices that leaders make long after they leave their original employers.

One informant summarized this legacy effect of career imprinting quite well when he described his own experience sitting on corporate boards with J&J alumni: "They (J&J alumni) always want to decentralize, no matter what!" (With over 160 business units, J&J has always been a highly decentralized organization.)

Organizational career imprints can have a lasting effect on the way leaders develop and the kinds of cognitive frames—as well as specific capabilities, connections, and confidence—they bring to new posts.

Q: What can potential leaders learn from the concept of career imprinting?

A: I outline many lessons for potential leaders that emerge from my study of career imprinting. Here, I will name just a couple.

First, the concept of career imprinting should help leaders make more effective career decisions throughout their careers. Since individuals are likely to cultivate an organization's career imprint during their early career, understanding the power of career imprinting is particularly relevant to those who are embarking on early career decisions. 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 their assumptions about how to lead and manage a firm over the long run.

Second, understanding that career imprints derive from patterns across individuals' career experiences should help individuals gather better information during their career decision-making processes. Identifying a potential employer's career imprint entails asking questions about much more than job function; it entails gathering information regarding workers' career paths so that patterns can be identified in the types of capabilities, connections, confidence, and cognition one would likely develop while working there. In addition, my study of Baxter's career imprint and the spawning that occurred out of Baxter and into biotechnology suggests that individuals who are making career decisions should not only learn about a potential employer's career imprint from insiders, those who work at a particular firm, but also from outsiders, those who are well-positioned to compare organizational career imprints in a particular sector or industry.

Finally, beyond implications for individual career decision making, the idea of career imprinting should help people make more effective decisions as leaders of firms later on in their careers, due to a greater awareness of the ways they have been shaped, developmentally, especially during the early career. Such increased awareness can help prevent a leader from misapplying a career imprint in a different organization—for example, recommending "decentralization always," irrespective of the situation. Leaders often unwittingly make assumptions such as "what worked at my old employer must work here." The idea of career imprinting calls such basic assumptions into question, since career imprints are specific to both time and place. Raising one's awareness regarding one's own "logics of action" and where they came from, can help a leader better understand when exporting or importing a previously-acquired organizational career imprint is appropriate.

Q: How significant is the relationship between strong exposure to belief structures during impressionable periods in one's career and future decision making?

A: Looking at the examples of Henri Termeer and Jim Vincent, what we see are very different leadership choices regarding foundational issues, such as organizational strategy and structure—choices that seem to reflect the organizations in which these individuals spent considerable time. These two in-depth case studies suggest that strong exposure to organizational career imprints during early careers can indeed affect subsequent leadership decision making.

Social networks are critical to leader decision making.

These case studies also suggest several conditions under which strong exposure is more or less likely to lead to decisions that truly reflect prior career imprints. First, leader decision making is more likely to resemble early career imprints when that leader has many degrees of freedom to effect change. When the situation is de novo, as was the case for Termeer, since he joined Genzyme during the company's formative years, a leader has much more latitude to import a previous career imprint. Vincent, in contrast, inherited the design choices of Wally Gilbert, the previous CEO at Biogen, and so had less latitude in the kinds of changes he could make.

Second, a tight connection between a prior career imprint and leader decision making is more likely when a leader surrounds him- or herself with people who worked previously for the same employer. As one informant told me, some of the "Baxter Boys" hired each other, enabling them to "speak the same language," which made the implementation of design choices that reflect Baxter's career imprint much easier.

Finally, leaders are more likely to export aspects of their early career imprints if they believe that a particular career imprint "worked"—that it was successful in some way that the leader values. Here, there are lessons as well: Reflecting upon an early career imprint can lend insight into what one doesn't want to import or take to a new post; as one of my interviewees told me, he chose not to recreate Baxter's culture since he did not agree with Baxter's "up or out," "sink or swim" approach to performance management.

Q: Do social networks influence the decision making of future leaders?

A: Yes, social networks do influence the decision making of future leaders in many respects. Indeed, the genesis for this book began with this very observation. In 1993, I had witnessed significant help-giving and receiving between CEOs who were all trying to get their young biotech companies off to a good start, help that ranged from instrumental assistance, such as loans of cash, to psychosocial assistance, such as friendship and caring. I observed that these helping relationships all shared a similar characteristic: all of these men had worked at Baxter. I began to think and write about this as a special form of social capital, as "institutional capital." And, I was convinced that these Baxter-based social networks were instrumental not just for individuals and their ability to get their careers off to a good start, but for the welfare of their young firms as well.

Since then and through my research on the Baxter Boys and the writing of Career Imprints, I have become even more convinced that social networks are critical to leader decision making. First, and perhaps most obvious of all, social networks facilitate the job seeking and career decision making of leaders who are contemplating career decisions, particularly major career transitions, as was the case here when people transitioned from well-established firms like Baxter to lead and manage fledgling firms in an emerging industry. Biotech was a highly uncertain environment with no proven products and with firms that had very limited track records. In my research, I heard stories of Baxter colleagues providing useful advice regarding which job to take and when, so that they could navigate through that uncertainty.

Second, it is evident that having "gone through wars together," these leaders were more comfortable caring and sharing with each other than might have been the case had they simply been industry contacts. Their formative career experiences had created strong peer networks that were and remain truly developmental in nature.

Finally, my research suggests that when people share a strong organizational career imprint, they are more likely to refer to those early career experiences and draw analogies to their current leadership situations when they are together. In this way, not only can these social networks provide instrumental help, they can also solidify, in many respects, the belief that certain aspects of a prior career imprint "worked," enhancing the likelihood that it will be invoked again. Here, there is yet another lesson: Recognize the potential for "groupthink" that can emerge from working and interacting with people who all carry with them the same organizational career imprint; having some diversity within one's social network is useful as well.

About the Author

Mallory Stark is the Career Information Librarian for Baker Library at Harvard Business School.