Here’s a quick post to summarize a conversation I had a few weeks ago about my own career path (thanks, Michael Schreck). Hopefully, this framework will be useful for other people exploring career development options.
At some point in our careers, we must choose to specialize. For some people this occurs very early, for example entering an apprenticeship at age 16 to learn a skilled trade. Others make this decision after working in the same functional role across industries, or in different functional roles in the same industry, or after a stint in consulting.
So what are you going to specialize in? Let’s simplify by stating that all business roles follow one of four tracks:
Fund raisers: These people raise funds to support transactions and investments, typically through private equity funds, hedge funds, exchange traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, or debt/equity offerings. You will succeed in this job if you love building pitch books, are already a famous and massively wealthy investor, and/or are such a fantastic salesperson that you can convince people to part with millions of dollars for the chance to own a sliver of something that won’t exist for years.
Deal makers: Once the funds have been raised, it’s time to put the dry powder to use by buying something. While many corporate development teams, venture capital & private equity groups manage deal flow and close transactions on their own, the deal makers that grab the largest share of the spotlight are investment bankers. Spending an unsustainable percentage of your life revising pitch decks is also a hallmark of this career path. but for those who succeed in riding the M&A waves, countless bespoke suits and limited edition watches await.
Profit takers: Once the fireworks around the deal have faded, someone’s got to execute the strategy. The owners of any business, ranging from a sole proprietorship to a limited liability company to a corporation, bear the risk of the ongoing operation, and also have the first cut of the retained earnings. [Updated thanks to a helpful comment by Pete Bondi] The owner’s role is to create: new products, services, and content that attract customers and retain competitive advantage. Recent studies show that most CEOs of large corporations have finance backgrounds, and all have had to climb the ladder by succeeding in operational and sales roles, in addition to any functional experience. US tax return data shows that higher earners are more likely to be self-employed, so the appeal of “owning something” can also be quite lucrative.
Advisors: After some feedback and discussion about this post, I’ve added a fourth category to include career consultants. Now anyone who has run a consulting business would put themselves in the third category above, but there are plenty of talented people who can lead long, fulfilling careers as non-partner, subject matter experts on the consulting track, without ever participating in the execution of their analyses.
Which path are you on? Why? Are you at an inflection point in your professional development? Sometimes eliminating an alternate path can help increase dedication to the path you’re on – so take a good hard look at the grass on the other side of the fence and make your decision.
Networking doesn’t start with opening accounts at LinkedIn, Facebook, Qzone, and Vkontakte. Whether we choose connect with clicks or handshakes, the part that makes the connection meaningful is the person. So forget about how you’re meeting people, who they are, and why you want to meet them: start with yourself.
Be yourself. In order to inspire trust and make genuine connections with others, you need to know (and be completely comfortable with) who you are and what you stand for. Think about the other people you have meaningful relationships with, who you are drawn to and why. You don’t need to be a peer of another person to develop a meaningful relationship with them, but “pretending” that you are a peer will make that impossible. References: True North, What got you here won’t get you there.
Give before you take, and don’t “keep score.” When you are generous with your help, advice, etc. with your relationships, you will find that the rewards come back with greater magnitude and at (pleasantly) surprising times. Reference: How to win friends and influence people.
Don’t ask permission to help. If you see an area in which you would like to help another person (by giving feedback, offering direct support, etc.), just help. It is very hard to damage a relationship by helping someone with the genuine intent on their success. Asking if the other person would like your help puts a barrier in the way and “costs” the other person something.
Seek out groups of people with whom you have few, but important, things in common. Common sense and scientific studies show that “weak ties” in a network are most important for building a broad network. So skip the Eastern Cleveland Tax Accountants’ Society mixer to volunteer at a soup kitchen or talk to the other parents at the state soccer tournament.
As with many things, you can test this approach to networking by looking at the situation in reverse: you just met a person who seems to agree with whatever you think, who makes a big effort to talk “at your level” rather than his or her own, and keeps asking what he or she can do to help you with your job search. When that face pops up with a request to connect online, how fast will you reach for the Ignore button?
People are promoted to the level of their incompetence
A players hire A players; B players hire C players
At first I chuckled at the humor of these observations that probably helped spawn characters in Dilbert and Office Space. After more consideration and reading a comprehensive book summary, I wondered “is this really an inevitable plateau we all face? What if I am already there?”
Reaching the limit of competence means being unable to perform at the scale or complexity of a new position. It’s easy to imagine (or remember) a situation like these: the diligent accountant who struggles to manage people, or the technically impeccable engineer who is paralyzed in sales conversations. Disappointingly, overcoming these plateaus is not an option offered in Peter’s book. But you can do it, and you can coach the people on your team to do it as well — as long as you are prepared to face your deepest fears.
Getting past the transition into any new job — meeting the people, learning the vocabulary, finding the coffee machine — a person will have to find a new winning strategy (see Goldsmith) in order to perform at a new level. This will require identifying and confronting your deepest fear (see Deida). In the examples above, perhaps the new accounting manager is will alienate direct reports because she is afraid to show vulnerability and humility. And if the engineer is afraid of being labeled a “sleazy salesman,” he will never earn the trust of a customer.
So stay on the lookout for the Peter Principle in your organization, just don’t accept it as an inevitable consequence.
I have come to recognize recently that strengths and weaknesses are often very, very closely related. While it is often easier to recognize in others, the same personality quirks or capabilities that enable people to succeed in some situations can limit their success in others.
Think of that project manager who produces flawless status updates, but often fails to pick her head up out of the details to recognize a risk on the horizon. Or the hard driving, Type A manager who can handle a larger workload than anyone else but can’t seem to retain a team. Here are three sources that help corroborate this theory of closely linked strengths and weaknesses: