Most people who get to the top say that luck played at least some part in their professional success. Such luck can arise from being in the right place at the right time, having a chance meeting, or some other unexpected event. A chance event occurs when unpredictable and unplanned factors influence a given kind of situation.

A myriad of chance events, both positive and negative, cross our path in life, and some of them will have profound implications on our life. Think of the apocryphal story from over three centuries ago of Isaac Newton quietly sitting under an apple tree. When an apple fell on his head, this painful chance event led him to the discovery of gravity. More recently, Steve Jobs famously said that the best thing which had ever happened to him was to be fired from his own company, Apple, when he was 30 years old.

Even though careers have become more dynamic, fluid, and volatile, professionals are encouraged to take responsibility for planning and managing their own path to success. Most managerial studies tend to focus on more predictable factors that might lead to professional success, drawing career roadmaps for linear progression, thus mostly ignoring the role of chance events and the way they might affect careers.

To fill this gap, together with colleagues from Audencia, Southampton Business School and EM Lyon*, we carried out research among a large sample of managerial professionals, to uncover to what extent chance events had influenced their careers. A total of 682 managers were surveyed, of which 53.52% were men and 46.48% women. They came from a broad range of industries including agriculture, financial services, manufacturing and the public sector, and were all based across Europe.

The research 

We asked participants three questions: the frequency and nature of various chance events, the perceived impact of chance events on career outcomes, and how individual characteristics relate to chance events and career outcomes.

We found that 62.17% of respondents (424 individuals, 56.6% male and 43.4% female) experienced a chance event that significantly influenced their careers. Of these, 414 (56.07% male and 43.93% female) indicated the nature of the event and its outcome.

Positive events included chance professional encounters that led to opportunities for career development, internal or external mobility. Negative events included company restructuring, downsizing and sudden closure and issues with senior management. Positive outcomes included promotion, new career challenges, a new job in a different sector that proved beneficial to career, while negative outcomes included difficulties in finding a job, a blocked career path or the deterioration of employment conditions, career stagnation and demotion.

320 respondents (77.29%) reported positive chance events while 94 (22.71%) experienced negative chance events. They also described the nature of that event on their careers: positive impact (377 or 91.06%) versus negative impact (37 or 8.94%).

We could then identify four scenarios:

  1. Negative event/positive impact: 71.28% (67 respondents out of 94) experienced a negative chance event but reported a positive career impact, with a male/female ratio of 53.73%/46.27%.
  2. Positive event/positive impact: 96.88% (310 respondents out of 320) indicated positive outcomes resulting from positive chance events, with a male/female ratio of 56.77%/43.23%.
  3. Negative event/negative impact:  28.72% (27 respondents out of 94) reported cases of negative events with negative impact, with a male/female ratio of 51.85%/48.15%.
  4. Positive event/negative impact: only3.13% of cases (10 respondents out of 320) fell into this category, with a male/female ratio of 60%/40%.

We found that nearly 80% of the chance events were positive, and nearly always had a positive career impact. However, for around 5% of positive events, the eventual career impact was seen as negative. In terms of negative chance events, in over 70% of the cases, a negative event had a positive eventual impact on the career, with only very few cases of negative events with negative outcomes.

Interestingly, those who did not report any significant chance events tended to earn less and have lower status than the average. They also ranked lower on employability. However, they also reported lower incidences of burnout and higher levels of psychological well-being at work than those whose careers had been affected either way by chance.

Career success and chance events 

Of course, we have to recognise that the meaning of career success will differ for each person. For some it will mean hierarchical attainment and high earnings, as these attributes represent verifiable and traditional societal perceptions of success, despite the dangers of burnout. Others will prioritise employability and growth, or sustainability and environmental or societal impact, not forgetting that since the pandemic of 2020, work-life balance has become an increasingly important measure.

As our study shows, it would be a mistake to continue to view careers as a purely linear progression and to discard chance events. Chance events can be a major catalyst for careers. They can lead to career shocks and influence professional development from early career stages. We feel that our investigations can not only increase our understanding of career progression but also be used to develop guidelines and advice for individuals and organisations.

Sustainable career management in a VUCA environment suggests that HR professionals should be aware of the unpredicted nature of chance events, especially for managerial careers. Therefore personalised career counselling and flexible coaching approaches are necessary. Also, mentoring programs are helpful to navigate through the labyrinth of career paths. Individual development plans may incorporate more flexibility and adapt to the needs of managers regarding their career development. Adaptability is a key managerial competence to adjust to unpredicted changes. Our study also highlights the importance of the soft skill resilience. Organisations may train their managers on how to build resilience and agility in order to build sustainable careers for the 21st century.


* Celine Legrand is professor of Organizational Behaviour at AudenciaYehuda Baruch is professor of Management at Audencia and Southampton Business School (UK) and Nikos Bozionelos is professor of Organizational Behaviour and International HRM at EM Lyon Business School

Christine Naschberger
Professor Christine Naschberger
Professor at Audencia Business School | + posts

Christine Naschberger is a professor in the Organizational Studies & Ethics department at Audencia Business School, France. Her research focuses on diversity and inclusive practices in an organizational context. More specifically, she studies managerial and women's careers, female networks, disability in the workplace, generational issues, and LGBTQIA inclusion. She has been published in ranked journals like European Management Review, Gender, Work and Organization, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: an International Journal, Management International, Relations Industrielles / Industrial Relations, and @GRH among others.