The use of metaphor to explore career management .

Practitioner Resources

roadThe long and winding road – the use of metaphor to explore career management .

Published in Career Matters June 2015. Issue 3.3. The Career Development Institute

Consider the question of where you are with regard to your work/life path at the moment; are you cruising along and enjoying the ride, finding yourself at a dead end, going around a roundabout and feeling unsure which road to take?; Are you chugging up a steep hill, travelling along a windy path with a destination unknown?

Traditionally “career” has been regarded as a straight road. When young you decide on a long term career goal. A fairly predictable career path is then embarked upon i.e. the milestones of education, training, promotion are clearly signposted. Today the journey is more complex and ever-changing.

“There’s no such thing as a career path, it is crazy paving and you have to lay it yourself.” Sir Dominic Cadbury.

Some may still experience a relatively straight road, but modern definitions, for example, that of the “Boundaryless Career” (Arthur 2003), reflect that many will change direction or roles several times, experience multiple employers, face redundancy and consider jobs or working patterns that didn’t exist ten years ago. The implications of this shifting landscape can be challenging for both individuals and their families.

Possessing a career goal can be reassuring and provide direction but, in isolation, is insufficient to navigate the career landscape. Career Management Skills such as adaptability, resilience, awareness of transferable skills and networking are essential and are at the heart of modern guidance practice. Yet the concept of career management is often unappreciated outside of the career profession. This article will explore how the concept of the modern career can be effectively communicated through the use of metaphor, enabling clients to review their own career management strengths and development needs.

Using metaphor in guidance

Metaphor is frequently defined as “understanding and experiencing one idea or object in terms of another” (Amundson 2014:2).  Ideally metaphors will come from the client via career conversations which are often peppered with metaphors, for example, “I’m hitting a brick wall”, ‘I’ve felt in a rut for ages but this is a chance to get out”, “it’s a bit of a maze”. Skilled practitioners listen out for metaphors and use them to explore the client’s narrative in more depth, for example, “How high and deep is that wall?” “If you had a ladder, what would you see on the other side?”, “What do you need to get over the wall”, “How motivated are you to tackle this wall”, “what’s got to happen to for you to want to climb over the wall?


According to Amundson, there are distinct advantages to using metaphors:

  • They help people to describe more accurately what they are feeling or thinking;
  • They encourage creative thinking and problem solving;
  • They are non-threatening and can defuse resistance;
  • They have the capacity to evoke more than an intellectual response, tapping into emotions and physical responses;
  • Negative and self-defeating metaphors can be reframed to create deep shifts in thinking that reason alone cannot penetrate;


The concept of the ladder or straight road is so firmly entrenched in many people’s psyche that statistics and facts alone will not loosen its grasp. Therefore the metaphor needs to be engaged with and reframed.


The Long and Winding Road


Whist it is preferable to use metaphors that come from the client, it can also be useful to use culturally recognisable metaphors such as the journey. In presentations to groups this may be as straightforward as using an image of a straight road and explaining how the landscape has changed, reinforced by images of a winding road with roundabouts, several paths, bridges and diversions. The discussion that follows could focus on the relative advantages and disadvantages of both the straight and winding roads. After all, they may experience both at some point in the life.

Resources for the Journey

This understanding of “career” provides a useful introduction to the concept of career management. When you set off on a long car journey you take several resources; car keys, fuel, music, food; phone, company, a satellite navigation system and guidebook. Likewise a life/work journey demands resources such as flexibility and resilience (Bassot et al 2014), adaptability (Bimrose 2011); the ability to take risks and decision making skills. An in-depth outline of the career management skills can be found in the Blueprints/ frameworks developed by Canada, Australia, England, Skills Development Scotland and Careers Wales.


Skills Development Scotland has integrated the assessment of Career Management Skills (CMS) into career practice by using a card sort activity. At an appropriate stage in the guidance process, the practitioner contracts to undertake an assessment using a set of cards with CMS statements on (an online version is also available). These statements are discussed and sorted into career management strengths and development needs. This forms the basis for a career development action plan that outlines the relevance of career learning activities.


This approach contributed to the development of Career Navigator, a resource which has been successfully piloted in Wales and England with clients of all ages and abilities. The materials consist of an image of a winding and straight road with features on such as a bridge, roundabout, crossroads, and a set of cards. On one side of the cards are images of resources they need for the journey, for example, satellite navigation system and money. On the other side are related career management skills such as planning, networking and flexibility. The statements are a synthesis of the UK Blueprints and frameworks. An instruction guide outlines the questions that a career practitioner can ask to ensure the activity is a meaningful discussion of strengths and development needs with tips as to how to tailor the activity to different ages and abilities, both in one-to-one and in groups.


Evaluations of career navigator indicate that both young people and adults respond well to the metaphor of the road and resources for the journey.


“helpful”; “informative”; “fun”; “an easier way of understanding opportunities”; “really good, the activity helped quite a bit to understand the path of my future and what I may need”

Young people, NPTC Group.


“The exercise works really well and often gets conversations going very quickly as people share how they feel and what they are thinking”.

Jackie Pickles, NCS Adult Adviser, Futures, Nottingham



The concept of career and career management can be difficult to convey in a climate where many desire a straight road with clear goals and sign-posted stages. The metaphor of an unpredictable, winding road with many avenues is useful for creating shifts in thinking and a recognition of the need to possess more than a plan in order to navigate the modern career landscape.


For further information on Career Navigator visit

Liane Hambly is an author, career consultant, trainer and executive coach. To date she has trained over 9000 practitioners throughout the UK. And is currently writing a book on career coaching.

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Arthur, M.B. (2003) New Careers, New Relationships: Understandings and Supporting the Contemporary Worker, iCeGS.

Amundson, M.E. (2014) Using Metaphor in Career Intervention, in APA handbook of career intervention, Vol 2

Australian Blueprint for Career Development,

Accessed September 2014

Bassot, B., Barnes, A., Chant A. (2014) A Practical Guide to Career Learning and Development: Innovation

Bimrose, J., Brown, A., Barnes, S-A. Hughes, D. (2011). The role of career adaptability in skills supply. Evidence report 35. Main report . London: UKCES.

Canadian Blueprint for Life/work design,     

Accessed September 2014

English Blueprint

Accessed March 2015

Scotland Careers Management Skills Framework…/career_management_skills_

Accessed September 2014


The long and winding road – the use of metaphor to explore career management . Published in Career Matters June 2015. Issue 3.3. The Career Development Institute Consider the question of where you are with regard to your work/life path at the moment; are you cruising along and enjoying the ride, finding yourself at a […]

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