Making Career Vertically Is Like Overtaking Without Changing Lanes

During my professional life as an Industrial Engineer, I’ve considered a number of career moves. This was either because I received an offer, or because I applied for a position. Some, I accepted. Others, I declined. I imagine it’s that way for most of us.

Two weeks ago, a very large project I’m managing was approved for implementation. It is scheduled for delivery in the summer of 2014. The approval process for this project took several months because of the large amount of money involved. I defended the project to all ranks within the organization, from the workers and supervisors all the way up to the CEO.

During this time of uncertainty about the project’s future, I felt a corresponding uncertainty regarding my own position as its project manager. My thoughts often turned to alternative career options, should this investment not make it through the approval process. Here’s what I came up with.

1 – Holding Position

Definition
To do the same thing, within the same company, in the same way, until you retire.

Referred to as
“Lifetime Employee”, “Dinosaur”, “Office Furniture”

Pay
Stagnant, only increasing with inflation and seniority.

Responsibilities
Always the same.

Organisation
Always the same.

Pros
Security, working within your comfort zone, building experience, dependable, predictable.

Cons
If the job is lost, finding and adapting to a new one gets harder with age. After a while, there’s no real challenge anymore. Boredom and cynicism are hard to avoid. Limited financial means.

Examples
Nurse, car mechanic, police officer.

2 – Moving vertically

Definition
To advance your career by being promoted within your company according to performance, popularity and politics.

Referred to as
“Traditional Career Path”, “Rat Race”

Pay
Increasing in leaps when promoted, plus inflation and seniority.

Responsibilities
Increasing.

Organisation
Within the same one.

Pros
Security, increasing challenges, respect within the organization, increasing financial means.

Cons
In reference to the title of this article: the only opportunity to move forward is when the position ahead of you opens up. This can happen when the next guy reaches his final destination (death / retirement) or if he takes an exit (fired / quits). And when his spot opens, you and your peers will be racing for it. In fact, you and your peers are already competing, conspiring and backstabbing in order to qualify for the best spot on the starting grid. Additionally, the people behind you might sabotage you to force you out of the race.

Examples
Most management jobs.

3 – Moving horizontally

Definition
To move between similar positions in different companies.

Referred to as
“Freelancer”

Pay
Market-driven, according to supply and demand.

Responsibilities
Stay the same.

Organisation
Many different ones.

Pros
Frequent changes in work environment, flexibility, ability to follow market opportunities.

Cons
Pay and job security are dependent on market conditions, hard to find opportunities for advancement.

Examples
Graphic designer, journalist.

4 – Moving diagonally

Definition
To  advance your career by moving to a higher position in a different organisation.

Referred to as
“Job Hopper”, “Opportunist”

Pay
Increasing.

Responsibilities
Increasing.

Organisation
Many different ones.

Pros
Challenging, able to take maximum advantage of market opportunities, flexibility.

Cons
Negative connotation: disloyal, money-grabber. Accumulated career capital (goodwill, acknowledgement) never transfers fully to the new organization.

Examples
Moving from junior account manager to senior account manager in a different company.

5 – Scaling your position

Definition
To  advance your career by taking up a similar position, but in a larger organisation.

Referred to as
“Rising Star”

Pay
Increasing.

Responsibilities
Stay the same, but the numbers get bigger.

Organisation
Many different ones.

Pros
Challenging. Opportunity to build your own personal brand name, to earn trust and respect. Progress is only limited by your own ability.

Cons
Takes careful planning and continuous self-improvement. (Hmm, are those disadvantages?)

Examples
Actors, football players, CEO’s.

Wrap-up

It’s interesting to notice that strategy Nr. 5 – Scaling your position is common in competitive fields like sports and entertainment, but not in business. In that respect, it’s quite similar to deliberate practice. And when you do see position scaling in business, it’s usually a reactive strategy, rather than a proactive one. It usually happens when a person has performed well on a certain job and is offered a similar position on a bigger assignment. But I think it is rare that people actively plan their career like this.

To give you an example: I’ve recently been thinking that I would eventually like to expand my management responsibilities beyond project management. I’ve always been attracted to entrepreneurship, but the opportunity cost, the associated risk, and the toll it would take on my private life are just too high. A similar role to that of entrepreneur is that of CEO. He has many of the same tasks and responsibilities, except for ownership.

This dawned on me when I saw a documentary on the life of Steve Jobs. I knew of course that he started and owned Apple, but I didn’t know that he was kicked out in 1985 and sold all of his shares (except one). He eventually made his comeback at Apple in 1996, but as the company CEO, without owning any of the business.

The traditional way for me to go for CEO, would be to wait until I can get promoted to department manager, then regional manager, then business unit manager, then COO, and eventually CEO. This approach takes a lifetime, and offers no guarantees that it will work. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed to fail. Assume for a minute that in my organisation of 15.000 people, there are 100 guys with the ambition of becoming CEO. That means that, assuming I’m of equal skill and popularity, my chances of making it are 1 in 100, or a full 1%. Factoring in that I’m already 33 and not exactly on the traditional career path, those odds get even worse.

I started thinking what the hypothetical fastest way would be for me to become CEO. In every job ad for the position of CEO or executive director I see something like: “min. 5 yrs P&L”, meaning that you need at least 5 years in a position where you are responsible for profit and loss. Okay, but where do I acquire the first year of P&L responsibility? It’s a circular problem.

The biggest threshold to get into any higher level position, is to land the first job carrying that title. Once you’re a project manager, it’s easier to find the next project management job. Once you’re a football coach, it’s easier to find your next team. The hard part is to go from designer to project manager. Or from player to coach.

This means that if I want to become CEO, the way to do it is by being a CEO. Sounds familiar? A bit circular, isn’t it?

Yes and no. It simply means that on my next job, I’d want to be called CEO, executive director or general manager. And if that wasn’t possible, I’d want a job with a similar set of responsibilities, so this job could set me up for one as CEO. I’d look for the biggest possible job running a company small enough to take me as the new boss. I’d jump diagonally to this job (diagonal in this case could also mean downward in terms of absolute numbers: budget under my control, people under my leadership). From there, I’d scale my position to ever bigger companies, until I am the CEO I set out to become. Or until I hit my level of incompetence.

So here’s my theory: the shortest route to the job you eventually want, is to start in a much smaller version of it (but the biggest one you’re eligible for), and then to use position scaling to leverage this. It sounds obvious, but it’s in direct conflict with the traditional model of the vertical career.

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