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The right age, the right task to shape your career

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The years from the early 30s to the mid 40s are those that shape careers. There is enough time left to recover from false starts, late starts, detours and dead ends. But enough time has passed to have a real record, to have created a distinguishable profile, and to have developed a depth of skill.

This is the age group that can best take advantage of the lessons of the search firm files. This is the group that starts to show up on the short list for division-head jobs, presidential jobs, CEO and chairman positions.

The checklist of qualifications for executives in this age group includes the same things listed in Part Two. These qualifications determine who ends up on the radar and who receives the job offers.

They are also the same things that we discussed in Chapter 5 ("Why a Headhunter Makes You a Candidate"):
  • You hold a position in which you demonstrate both accountability and results.
  • Pensate for overseas hardship duties while being provided housing, cars, household help, all the time enjoying the freedom from head office
  • You have people outside your company who can attest to your influence, character and managerial skill.

The Book of Lists

Pressure, and a business pace that was somewhere between relaxed and languid. While this reality no longer exists, the stereotype persists.

Another good time go overseas is as you get near the top and have the opportunity to run an international region or product group. At this stage you will be involved in a job where you can demonstrate results, with the added dimension of having achieved them in a different culture. That is an incredibly valuable practical experience as well as a most useful addition to your profile.

When to Take an Assignment That Helps You Learn about Your Weaknesses versus Relying on Your Strengths

You might, for example, know that your principal strengths and aptitudes are marketing and sales. Finance and other quantitative disciplines leave you shuddering. But you know that CEO prospects must understand that side of the business. Some of the rules for gaining this kind of useful broadening are similar to those for international assignments. Get the experience early, or add it late when you can be directly in charge and rely on other people with the technical skills so that your contribution is strategic.

When taking on functions that are not your strong suit, there are two important rules. The first is that you ought to have an "exit ticket" signed by your senior management. By exit ticket I mean a clear understanding that this is an assignment that you are taking on for broadening purposes, and that, within a specified period, you will be moved back into a function that relies on your strengths. The best kind of exit visa is, of course, where the specific assignment to which you will move is agreed upon in advance. Failing that, your agreement ought to be with more than one senior manager, so a turnover or reassignment of one person doesn't void your understanding.

The other rule is not to take on this kind of broadening assignment when you suspect that you will need a platform of strength to move on to the next stage. The reality is that, in the eyes of the outside world, you are always typecast in whatever function you currently occupy. If you are a marketing genius who just happens to take a swing through production, many of the things that come your way will be in the production zone. Alternatively, you will be at a disadvantage in competing for marketing jobs since (while in production), you will look like an operations guy trying to make a move into marketing. While inaccurate, this creates a perceived risk that few hiring managers particularly want to take.

Can You Do a Trial Run as an Entrepreneur?

This has the same dimensions as going from a big company to a small company. The passage from corporate-executive-in-the-making to entrepreneur is usually a one-way ticket. There are two reasons for this. First, those who become real entrepreneurs won't ever relinquish the kind of control they have, or the sense of speed and excitement that comes from running your own show, to return to the vagaries of corporate life. And even if they want to, the corporate world has learned from long experience that entrepreneurs are not "housebroken" enough to become satisfied and conforming citizens of a corporate culture.

The second reason it doesn't work is that entrepreneurs don't have the kind of leadership skills that corporate managers need. When you are the owner you move quickly and without consultation. You don't really have a peer group. You develop a "my way or the highway" mentality. You know that speed and responsiveness are your keys to survival. As a result, many entrepreneurs don't develop the ability to visualize and communicate a strategic situation to motivate large groups of colleagues and subordinates. And yet this skill is essential because in the large corporate world these colleagues and subordinates do, in fact, have the option of not following your every command blindly.

So if you're planning to take the big dive off the high cliff and start swimming on your own, realize that entrepreneurs move from one entrepreneurial situation to another but not back and forth to the executive suite.

The experience of H. Ross Perot when his company, EDS, was acquired by GM is probably very instructive. Perot is the ultimate entrepreneur. There was no inclination on his part to change the style that worked when he was the head of his own company. He second-guessed managers who ran business units. He criticized GM's senior officers as lacking vision. And he took his assessments of their shortcomings public. This obviously was a source of profound irritation and discomfort to the directors and managers of a company as large and institutionalized as General Motors. In a high percentage of the cases where an institutionally-managed company acquires an entrepreneurial company, the founder/entrepreneur will end up leaving within 12 to 24 months.

There are some exceptions to this rule. The exceptions typically arise where the managers who have built a business are acquired when an industry is consolidating. The acquiring company usually needs the talent and drive of those "acquired" managers as well as the continuity they contribute to maintain relationships with the acquired organization as well as with the franchise the acquiring company has purchased. Banking is a good example of this. Over the last 15 years there have been a number of cases of managers who have left large banks to head medium-sized or regional groups that were then acquired. These people returned to become part of the senior management team of the acquiring company. But with all due respect to my former profession, the reality is that bankers are not entrepreneurs. Their mind-set is more fiduciary and institutional so these transitions are less difficult.

Can You Afford a Tour in Politics or Government Service?

This is a less common but still relevant question. Higher and higher degrees of interactivity between business and government would suggest that people who have spent time on both sides of that line would be better equipped to handle executive responsibilities. But that is only textbook thinking. The reality is that, like entrepreneurship, the cultures are so different that it is the rare individual who can survive the transition.

To begin with, the vast majority of government jobs are in municipal and state agencies. It is very hard to make a case that experience at either of these levels translates into anything useful for executive careers. The issues in state government do not have much overlap with business. They deal with the delivery of social services, education, the building of roads and the operation of prisons, none of which have private sector transferability.

The person who has already had responsibility as a president or CEO and who can attract a federal cabinet or subcabinet position broadens his profile. But for those who haven't made it to the top job, government service complicates the factors in building an executive career. There are a few exceptions, but they are those that occur early. White House staff service in your late 20s or early 30s would be a positive factor, as would short stints in agency and legislative staff positions in the federal government. It would be even better if you had a line job or two beforehand so that you could reenter the private sector after a few years of government experience. But it is not likely that someone in her mid to late 30s and who is just beginning to crack upper management will do anything except complicate her career planning by taking a government position. This is the time when the "market" is expecting her to be showing that she can deliver clear results for shareholders. You don't do that in government.

What about a Sabbatical?

Despite all the hype about family leaves and multiple sequential careers, the reality in the corporate world is this is very hard to do. There is a persistent belief that "real executives" are maniacally focused on their careers, don't take time off and don't give these kinds of "other issues" much priority. It is not clear whether this mind-set comes from jealousy, from the intensity of the competition, or some sort of residual machismo. But they reality is that it is still there. While it is now diminishing, there is still a double standard that labels women who are this career-focused as "libbers" and men who aren't as dilettantes.

Among prospective employers it is easier to explain being out of work for nine months because you were fired or downsized than it is to explain that you took off nine months to handle primary child care duties or to give your spouse an opportunity to explore options. Even less acceptable is the notion of taking a year off to "smell the roses," learns Sanskrit, or get in touch with your "inner child."

The Fact That Exceptions to the Profile Are Risky Doesn't Mean They Aren't Valuable and Rewarding

Anything that creates a deviation or exception to the standard profile does, in fact, require one more conversation and one more act of understanding and faith that this exception doesn't detract from your capabilities as an executive. It doesn't mean that these things aren't worth doing. Having a well-rounded executive profile is only one aspect of building an executive career. So the fact that we point out the risks and the trade-off should be understood only in the context of creating the kind of profile that is most likely to attract outside opportunities. There is much more to life than becoming a CEO, and there are complicated personal issues in terms of development, experience and relationships that all those wishing careers have to consider. In Part five we will talk about the broader perspective and the prices that people pay for pursuing executive opportunities.

During these critical years there is a clear advantage to developing a certain kind of profile if you want to improve your odds for achieving senior executive jobs. But this profile is not a formula for happiness or for self-esteem. It is what it is. Individuals have to see it as the product of an impersonal marketplace and decide whether the pros and cons make sense for them as individuals in a much broader context.
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