Primary Colors: Bringing Clarity to Career Planning

by on September 11th, 2015

Professor Kevin Sharer, former CEO of Amgen, outlines the three big considerations to keep in mind as you think about the next stage of your career.

The new year starts. For the class of 2017, the new, challenging, and hopefully rewarding world of HBS is coming into focus. For the class of 2016, the freedom, diversity, and enrichment of the EC year awaits. The question of career and first job choice is lurking somewhere in just about everyone’s psyche, though, as summer turns into fall. How to best organize one’s thinking about this important choice?

A senior HR person at a prominent technology company said we all should manage our own careers and be responsible for our own morale. My hunch is that these are strongly linked ideas. Let’s focus on the first part of the advice. Virtually everyone who comes to HBS considers the experience a strong determinant of their career arc and hopefully even outcome. Some people are lucky. They think they know with total clarity what they are good at and like doing, what career path they will follow, and the job they want right out of HBS. Even some of these folks find out that what was clear in their late twenties might not be so clear a decade later. For most everyone else, the career and post HBS job choice is somewhat of a confusing maze with so much guidance, folklore, faculty advice, peer pressure, parental expectation, and plain misinformation that the choices can seem confusing at best and overwhelming at worst. So, how to think clearly and make smart moves?

First, stop listening to so many voices.

Your classmates are just as confused as you, peer comparisons are more high school level than graduate school, the faculty while well-meaning have very little actual experience and what is “hot” now probably will not be as hot later. Parents want the best for you, but their advice is also far from objective or well-informed about the realities of the world you will enter and experience. They know their world, not yours. The best advice is to think bigger picture and longer term. While much angst is involved in that first job choice, it will not determine your life, you will likely change course meaningfully in the first three to five years, and you have plenty of runway to recover from a stumble or two. Do the best you can in picking the first job, but do not obsess too much about it.

Think in primary color terms, which means think about the big things.

Putting aside a career in the arts, government service, or working for an NGO, there are three big zones on the career strategic game board. These three are operator, investor, or advisor. Operator has as its highest arc becoming a CEO or being a general manager. Investor could be venture, private equity, portfolio manager, or hedge fund with partner or owner likely the pinnacle spot. Advisor could be banker, consultant, accountant, or lawyer with partner usually the top spot.

Operators run things from starting businesses to being CEO of a global enterprise. Investors generally like to bet on operators, advise operators, and occasionally choose operators, but rarely have the inclination or skill to do the leading themselves at the front line position. They can be very important enablers, influencers, and coaches with extraordinary financial rewards in some cases. Advisors are a step removed from investors in that they usually have no skin in the game. However, they can be very useful to operators and can sometimes provide valuable insights. Successful advisors usually develop a broad range of activity within a sector and enjoy being involved in the affairs of numerous enterprises.

You should at first try to decide which of these three broad zones—operator, investor or advisor—will be your ultimate target.

This is your most important decision. A popular hope is that being a consultant will help you be a better operator, choose more wisely, or enter at a more senior level. There must be examples of each of these benefits, but my best advice is to not hope for shortcuts or think consulting provides any meaningful extra learning beyond HBS on a path to being a CEO. You can certainly move among the three zones but zone transitions involve friction and risk that may not be helpful or necessary.

The next primary color level choice is enterprise size.

If you are driven to start a company, do it. Have your eyes wide open and understand the odds with some sense of a next step move. For others, the quality of company should trump the size as a consideration. Quality means reputation, products, leadership, values, and financial performance and prospects. Go where you can see what good looks like, learn, feel proud to be a member of the firm, and genuinely enjoy working there. One last thought on size. It is easy to go big to small but harder to go small to big. Small should have the virtue of less organizational weight and complexity but it also will of necessity have fewer positions to move among. Quality and fit for you are the key thoughts here.

Location is the third primary color choice dimension.

Some say that only the job counts and location is very, very secondary. I do not agree. Location counts for both professional and personal reasons. A location with many opportunities puts you in a place to meet others, join associations, find meaningful connection in the volunteer world, bump into colleagues, know about other companies, and in general be in an opportunity rich environment where you can make the face-to-face connections that will always trump any online “relationship”. On a personal level in a two career partnership you will want an environment that provides support, options, and the flexibility two career families need. This usually means a larger or very professionally dense city that is more than a narrow slice of the economy. Finally, where you live influences how you enjoy your non-work time which hopefully is significant. One last thought. Weather counts. Enough said.

The last thought concerns money.

The worst thing to do is make a job choice out of HBS meaningfully influenced by first job compensation. Plan on success and bet on yourself. Financial security and wealth potential overwhelmingly comes from equity compensation or is tied to equity like returns. Next, your compensation ten or fifteen years out will be little related to the first job and overwhelmingly dependent on choices you make and performance you achieve. Managing your career is easier than you think. Make a good set of primary color choices or get to the right strategic career spot as soon as you can; do a good job that is recognized by subordinates, colleagues, and your boss; make reasonable choices as the opportunities that result present themselves; see life as a journey of continuous growth; and stay mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy. A last thought. Who you pick and who picks you as life partner overwhelms all of the above in significance and importance. A good thought to keep in mind.

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