OK, some folks have asked me questions and while free advice is worth exactly what it costs, I thought I’d post some rules that at least have helped me. This is tuned for someone just starting out in the world and wondering what their career path should be…
I have ten rules, but I’d summarize by saying:
Pick the right industry, then the right company in that industry, then the right job in that company. Leave before you get fired and know when to jump for the opportunity of a lifetime.
Ok here are the big rules in no particular order:
- “Build a great personal board of directors” In the end, it is people who matter, Ruthann once told me, have your own personal board of directors (on a nice walk by SFO, I still remember the exact spot). She was so right. If you think of yourself as a company or as a product, then the most important thing is to collect wisdom from people who are smart, who have the wisdom. Perhaps the most important skill in life is being able to tell the difference between a blow hard and someone who really is altruistic. They really have your best interests at heart. When you have a big decision, rely on your gut and on their advice. It doesn’t take many and you have to know the bias of the source, but it’s a good idea. Some people are good at certain things, like what’s a great sector, some at other things, like how to get ahead, but the combination is the point. How can you tell who is great, well look at their track record, if they have followed every curve and been on top, there’s a reason. Make sure your board reflects who you are. Don’t hire conservative bankers if you are a wide-eyed entrepreneur.
- “Stay in the high growth markets.” Ok, this is probably the most important rule. Are you more likely to do better in a market growing 50% a year or where it is growing 1% a year. I’m really amazed at how often someone will stick with a sector that was once hot but has leveled out. If you realize that the average person has a new job every three years and really a new career every seven, then you can see that even if you stay with a company for 15 years, then make sure you are on the right wave. One year, it might be PCs, one year it might be mobile, then next the Internet of Things. One of the most important jobs is predicting markets; the truth is everyone is a stock market analyst in that regard, so read the WSJ, think about where the business is going.
- “Bet. Rinse. Repeat as needed.” We are so lucky to live in the 21st century where markets are moving and a fresh start is just one new business card away. But I like to think of jobs as punctuated equilibrium, you need to keep moving until you find the right place and then stick with it. So make your bet on industry, company and job and make sure to reassess. I’m amazed at the number of people who after 90 days on the job know that it is a mistake, but then stick with it for 5 years. While it might be controversial, would you rather see a résumé with two 5 year stints and mediocre results or where you see three jobs in the first three years, then an eight year stint where the last title is General Manager.
- “Jumping through the rabbit hole.” Conversely there are times when you know that the stars have aligned and if something happens, then you can have an amazing 20 year career. The “rabbit hole” doesn’t appear often and most of us only get it once or twice in a lifetime, but when you see if jump with all your might, do what it takes jump down and through the Alice in Wonderland.
- “Keep transferable”. I was just talking with someone who found a great job, the perfect company, great people, etc. The problem is that there is exactly one company who needs those skills. Everything they do is proprietary. Well that’s great for high profits, but what if that niche closes, then where are you. It’s a good idea to keep reminding yourself, “I want a job that is in high demand everywhere.” There’s a natural tendency to just keep getting better at what you are doing, but remember that if you are not spending 30% of your time learning something new something is wrong.
- “Stick with winners in companies and bosses” The sad truth is that even if you pick the right industry, the overall success of the company matters the most. Winners always look wonderful and even if you did a relatively small job in the market leader, you are in good shape typically. Moreover, typically there is a positive cycle. The category leader tends to attract the best people, they have the most money so riding the long wave of success is not a bad thing. On the other hand, there are definitely market leaders that are not good places to work. I love places where you can run your own business, where the company is really 20 or even 100 P&Ls, it’s a lot easier to be at the top then.
- “Do you fit in the culture, can you be no. 1?” Lots of times when I look at a new company, I look at the CEO and ask, how would I do in a meeting with him or her. Even if you are zillion levels down, remember that CEO hired all the bosses above you and how the company works takes its cues. While I love the under dog stories of someone bucking the trend, its a “hard push up” to fight an entire company. You might be far better off not joining them in the first place or starting your own company and making your own culture 🙂
- “Hard but not too hard.” I was off on a ride and talking with a really good guy (you meet the best people on Lyft rides I find 🙂 We talked about following “your dreams.” Well, the truth is I spend a lot of time trying to find jobs that are in the words of a very smart guy, “hard but not too hard.” What he meant is a job that is under-rated. It is really hard to follow an encore. Do you really want to come up with be the CEO of the most successful company in the world, after all what can you do for an encore? You want jobs that seem hard to others, that looks like turnarounds but where expectations are low. Some jobs are impossible (Blackberry??!) because they are too hard. Some jobs are impossible because how do you beat perfect, the trick is find one where the future.
- “Under promise, over deliver.” While cookie licking and taking credit may win in the short-term, in the end, everyone loves the person who just gets it done. If you’ve found the right industry, then now is the time to really deliver. Mike Maples once said, “make your commitments” and I’m amazed by how often this doesn’t happen. Most of us have zillions of action items, but in the end, if you do just three of the must do’s, and, are done by 10AM, then take the rest of the day off. If you think about it, how well would you do if after a year, you did 50 weeks x 5 days a week x 3 things = 450 super important things a year?
- “Focus wins.” My buddy John once told me, “I had a huge job Windows and then a bunch of other projects, so I asked my boss, if I knock it out of the park the other projects, but flub Windows, what happens to me?” When he got the obvious answer, he said, “well then I do not want the other things.” It’s a huge, huge, huge rule, focus on the one thing that really matters and make it clear. It is so easy to take on jobs B, C and D when A is how you are defined. As Brad has always told me, “Focus wins.”