Whether you are a working professional who is in a career impasse, a recent college graduate eager to get started, or a high school student who is really looking ahead, this article hopes to assist you in navigating the complex world of career development. As a working professional myself, who have been building a career in the digital industry for more than 20 years, and a father of two college kids, this is my small attempt to capture my learnings and make that knowledge useful.
We all need a job. We need a place to live, foods to put on the table, and cell phone bills to pay. But instead of some job that pays a wage, we should develop a career that engages us in a lifetime of learnings, challenges, accomplishments, excitements, recognitions, meaning, and, let’s not forget, money. Do that in mass scale and be part of the force that shapes this world.
Small Business vs Large Corporation
It was only 50 to 100 years ago that large corporations developed, thanks to the industrial revolution and all those incredible scientists, entrepreneurs who had laser focus on their passion and built their businesses from ground up, from small businesses to entities of massive scale that produced goods and services to increase manufacturing effectiveness so that goods and services are produced cheaper, better, faster, making them ever more attractive.
So, becoming an entrepreneur yourself, starting something new from scratch, learning every aspects of running the business, producing goods and services, delivering that to people who need it the most, in mass scale, could be the most learning, most challenging, and most rewarding career you could ever have. This is once in a lifetime chance to do something you love, whole lots of it, everyday, soup to nuts–just how so many founders of large corporations started this way in the beginning.
Many of you would also start your career working for small businesses and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, if your passion aligns, with lots of things to learn, room to grow, with right compensation, you should definitely take advantage of the opportunity. An ideal small business environment would be a startup, filled with hustle and bustle of growth, with an owner who not only believes deeply about the mission that is bigger than himself or herself, but also very capable of core skills and business acumen. As business grows, so would you, so long as you are capable and useful to the business generating tangible value, something we will cover later.
Large corporations also do grow and absolutely need to grow. Many would argue that if businesses don’t grow, then the only other path is becoming obsolete. The growth speed or reward may not be as comparable to the fast growing startup, but it does come with a degree of stability, security, compensation, and brand recognition. To fuel that growth, large corporations also need to hire and retain those top talents that can help them produce competitive products and services that people not only need but want, and do it cheaper, better, and faster. So last thing these large corporations want is having that very top talent starting their own businesses, bringing competition and disruption to the market space or losing them to the competitors. So to lure you in, these companies will offer competitive salaries, benefits, and perks.
Another reason why building career in these large established corporation is so attractive is because we have such emotional attachments to products and services that these brands produce and market. These established businesses spend enormous advertising dollars to associate their products to something we desire deeply, such as beauty, fame, rich, smart, and unique, many times, by associating their products with famous celebrities. And because we are so ingrained and fancy their products, when we work for these companies, our close friends and family automatically associate us to these brands, making us as cool and hip as the products.
Passion, Purpose, Calling
Building career means devoting lifetime in an industry and acquiring many skills and experiences that are needed to then climb up the corporate ladder. To endure the process, it is super important to work in the industry and in the area that you are passionate about. Every career requires hard work, continuous learning, and perseverance, just how Thomas Edison literally tried over 1,000 times to invent the first light bulb. Without having the drive, the passion, and the greater purpose, you are less likely to give your best, let alone survive, and lose out on the competitive edge.
What if you don’t have one or unsure? Not a problem at all! As long as you focus on creating values–the topic we will cover extensively–for the businesses and consumers, soon enough, you will be able to find one that you would be excited for. Though, it is definitely more easier to seek it earlier in life when you have much less financial and emotional obligations like family, mortgages, car loans, or before you get used to fancies of life such as fine dining, travel, expensive gadgets. Plus, once you find your passion and set your heart on it, there is nothing that you cannot achieve. Every learning opportunity and experience thereafter will be an excitement journey that you can’t wait to take. And because you will be putting a lot of effort, you will fail fast and learn whole lot more and keep plowing ahead. Even Howard Schultz, the man behind the success of Starbucks, left his very comfy corporate job to pursue his passion, a career in building successful mega coffee chain stores.
The Value System – The Holy Grail
Before we dive into minute details of corporate world, it is utmost important to have firm understanding of the value system that the human civilization was built on. As living creatures, we have the needs and wants to better ourselves. We call these things values. They help us fulfills our needs and wants. These values help us meet our basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, health, entertainment, and learning. When we were hunters and gatherers, we fulfilled them ourselves, but as agriculture developed and industrial revolution took place, we started to exchange these values among ourselves, ever better fulfilling our growing needs and wants.
Not until late 19th century and early 20th century, once the industrial revolution took place, businesses started to form and manufacture these values in mass scale, making them more affordable, in better quality, and enabling us to do things faster (e.g. invention of washing machines). As we open our door into digital world of 21st century, our needs and wants also expanded into digital goods such as computers, internet, mobile phones, as well as, Netflix, Spotify, Facebook, Snapchat, Airbnb,Uber, etc.
In order for these businesses to generate competitive values, they need to have the manufacturing capability and human capital to produce values in mass quantities. These businesses often take the form of corporation, so that it can protect itself and grow long after the founder passes away. Due to its shear size, its structure is also massive and complex. Though, do keep your focus on the holy grail–the value system. Hence, one that can deliver more value for the business, meeting their needs and wants, the more opportunity one will have in advancing their career in the corporate world. Here is a list of questions to consider for getting a firm grasp of the value system:
- What is that end value, the product or service, that the corporation is manufacturing?
- What human needs and wants does it meet?
- Does it improve on making people’s lives easier, better, and faster?
- What are the problems and challenges that the corporation is facing, and what can be improved?
- Am I passionate about that end value that the corporation is manufacturing?
- Out of all corporate functional unit, which areas can my skill set deliver most value to corporation?
- What are the micro values that this functional unit is producing, and how does it fit into the final end value that corporation produces?
- What are the problems and challenges that this functional unit is currently facing?
- Do my skills and experiences excel at solving those problems and challenges thereby be valuable to that functional unit?
Corporation Structure and Its Functional Units
Businesses, small or large, have many key functions it needs to perform in order for it to sustain itself and grow, just how key organs in our body functions to sustain health which holds our mind. In small businesses, most of the key functions are performed by the owner himself/herself but also often tap into vendors who can perform these tasks better and cheaper, such as, taxes, payrolls, printing, design, and IT. But for larger businesses, due to its shear size, it is often more efficient and effective to perform these functions in-house. Let’s take a look at these key functional areas that make up the business.
Research & Development / Engineering. In any business, at the heart, there is the value it generates. We call them products or services. That value, whether it be products like shampoo, coffee, car, mobile phone, mobile apps, or games, or services like street vendors, hair salons, laundromats, or internet services, these needs to be continuously improved so that it becomes better, cheaper, faster, unique, delivering new excitements and experiences for its consumers. If you don’t, your competitors will. This is where many original ideas are formed, prototypes are developed and tested with consumers.
Finance / Accounting / Tax / Investment. Once there is a compelling product that people find it valuable, they will want it and you are now in business. When that sales transaction occurs, there will be money to be collected and taxes to be paid. Also, when business needs to grow, it needs money. Usually, the business will take a loan from bank, or sell stocks to investors. How about managing payrolls for its employees? This is where finance and accounting comes in and play an essential role.
Human Resources (HR) / Benefits and Compensations. Some worry that robots and machines will replace humans. In the short term, it may look like so since robots will replace humans who would be doing simpler and more mundane tasks with enormous efficiency. But just like how agriculture freed us from physical exhaustion of hunting and gathering and gave us enough energy to start thinking creatively, that eventually fueled the industrial revolution, and that eventually led us to harnessing the laws of physics and chemistry, and allowed us to tap into enormous power of water, steam, petroleum, natural gas, even nuclear, and now the sun light. As we head into future, more and more passionate creative people will be needed ever more to continue the advancement of the humanity. This means inventing machines, tools, and processes that will help businesses continue creating values that are better, faster, cheaper, easier, unique, and exciting than ever. This is where HR plays a key role. They help business find and hire right people. Their role also includes coming up with benefits and compensation plans to help retain these key talents.
Manufacturing / Purchasing. Now that you have a great product, with enough cash on hand, and with key experts hired, it is now time to scale up the production of that value generation and meet the market demand and bring down the cost. This is where manufacturing comes in to produce quality product that can be delivered on budget and on time. If your business’s core product is service, then it would be scaling up of the human resources and process that wires up the human resources. It is easy to imagine that this business function can be of a massive scale. Most businesses also rely heavily on its suppliers to deliver parts that will be used to then manufacture that value. In such scenario, Purchasing team will ensure that these key parts are purchased in the right cost, amount, and at the right time.
Supply Chain. Manufactured goods whether physical or digital will need to be delivered to warehouses, retail locations, websites and mobile devices where customers can purchase and consume conveniently. This is business function usually takes up a good portion of the business, whether it delivered via humans or robots. One of the main reason why perfectly good food thrown away in developed world while there are still 800 million people starving everyday, is because there isn’t any cost effective way to deliver these food. It costs way more to deliver these food than the cost of the food themselves. Supply Chain also plays critical role in manufacturing. It ensures that all of the necessary parts and supplies are delivered to the right location, at the right time, and in the right amount. Because even one part is missing in manufacturing, the whole manufacturing could be halted and idling factory usually means incurring a big loss since it would still need to pay the workers, rent, etc.
Sales / Retail Operations. Now that products are delivered to the retail locations where consumers can see products and shop, this is where retail operation kicks in. In the past, it required human effort to make the sale. But as mega chain stores like Walmart introduced more efficient self-service model where consumers can actually see the competing products and determine what to buy. This brought more leaner and efficient store operation, reducing the cost and passing that saving to consumers and making their business more competitive and valuable to consumers. In this model, packaging and placement of the product on the shelf space made big difference. But even this model is now being disrupted by even more efficient model, an e-commerce online store like Amazon.com, cutting the need of not only physical retail locations but also the supply chain delivery needs, and to some degree, packaging needs, enormously saving massive amounts of cost and expense, and passing that saving all to consumers means gaining huge competitive advantage in the “cheaper” category. Though, for more higher-end products and services, one-to-one sales are still very much needed.
Marketing / Advertisement / Brand Management. Many times, we want to believe that because our product is so cool, as soon as we build it, people would flock to buy it. On the contrary, 99% of time, consumers are usually flooded with similar products and services, and do not have bandwidth to know or care about our product. This is where Marketing comes in. You want to first make sure that your product delivers what it promises. That is the first requirement to marketing. Without that, marketing effort will not yield any significant exponential value which is what it is meant to deliver. Then you want to establish your business’s unique identity like logos, color palettes, voices, signages, websites, so that your product is amplified, and at the same time, distinguished from your competitors. Then use advertising to hyper target your core consumers, the ones that would benefit the most and cherish the product, combined that with the contests, to yield exponential advertising effect.
Public Relations / Communications / Crisis Management. Public Relations works hand-in-hand with Marketing. Media and News companies always look for new and exciting, shareworthy things to cover. If you have a product or service that could revolutionize how things are done, media companies would love to cover the product. This is most beneficial for startups that are strapped for cash. Media coverage brings not only free media, but also help legitimize your product and your business. If your business is already an established business, you want to make sure that you manage the media companies well, so that you can not only take advantage of it, but also make sure to prevent negative media coverages to go haywire which could negatively impact the hard developed brand image. Then there is the crisis management where sometimes there is no way to prevent explosion of extremely negative story, especially true in this social media age. Crisis management team will play a key role in properly handing the situation and thereby minimizing the damage.
Legal / Contracting. More so with large corporations than startups, there are intellectual properties and established brand image to protect. If there is any illegitimate business that is tarnishing or making profit off of your intellectual properties, then you will need lawyers to help recoup the money and stop the bleeding. Contracting is also another area that is critical. Since more true for large corporations than the startups, they hire lots of agencies to do the heavy lifting of the work that could be more seasonal or occasional, such as making TV commercials, websites, mobile apps, that are not a core strength of your company. But with any engagement with agencies, it is important to craft the contract so that the terms are not negatively impacting the business. For example, many software-as-a-service products out there usually add automatic renewal clause, which is usually pretty bad since one could just get signed up for another year without acknowledgement, when there might not be a real need of the service. Another of those would be clearly defining the deliverables and dates that the agency needs to fulfill. Indemnity clause is also super important, which protects the company from agency’s wrongdoing and mishap. Usually, contract terms would be the only thing that could protect your business when things goes wrong. And yes, more often than not, things do go wrong.
Information Technology. We are living in an information age. Every corner of the business usually deal with crafting, consuming, and exchange of information and we do it using technology. We need to make sure that the equipment that the business is using is capable, reliable, and secured, that, our most expensive assets, human capital, can be as much creative as they can be without technology limiting, and that the information is exchanged reliably and securely.
Depending on the nature of business and its core product, a certain business area will be play larger role and therefore will be more complex than other areas. For example, Google has much larger R&D team than Marketing. For Starbucks, retail operation is much larger than R&D. And for Apple, manufacturing is larger than the rest. Larger the business area is, the more specialization of work there will be and the layers hierarchy, and more opportunity for career development.
Ladders of Corporate World
Within each functional areas of the business, there are different levels of responsibility that one assumes. These different responsibilities usually dictate the career ladder because higher the ladder, more responsibility that one would put on behalf of the business, and be trusted with more budget, resources, and vision of the company. The more responsibilities there are, the more learning, challenges, recognition, and money you would be rewarded with. Such ladder of responsibilities brings hierarchical system that often begets bureaucracy and silos that often slow down the business, but may be a necessary evil. But let’s not worry about that just yet. Instead, let me take you through a brief career journey of a baker:
- You are a baker and your passion lies with creating the most delicious breads and pastries for the mass audience. You get a pastry chef certification and open up a bakery. Initially, you would be the only one baking and selling the baked goods. You are officially an employee #1.
- Then you quickly find out that you need help baking in the morning so that you can finish all baking needs in time to open the store. Since you are strapped for cash, instead of finding a baker, you hire a part-time high schooler who loves baking, as a helper, paying her the minimum wage. You just hired an intern.
- The bakery business really starts to pick up. Work is hard but fruitful. It has been little over a year in operation, and revenue has been growing steadily. You want to actually expand the business so that more people can enjoy your lovely goods. To do that, you need to hire a baker who can handle all baking needs so that you can focus more on developing business. The helper that was hired when the bakery opened just finished getting her pastry chef certificate. Over the years, the helper not only shown her passion but great work ethic, creative, personality that you have relied and trust on. You decide to offer her the fulltime baker job. She is excited to accept the offer and begin to also think about new and exciting breads and pastries she could make for the customers.
- You took a loan from the bank but that wasn’t enough. You need to raise a large cash to open a second bakery. You have gathered angel investors and solicited their investment into the business. With the second bakery, the newly hired baker gets much more busier. She needs a helper. You hire a high schooler as a helper. This time, the baker also interviewed the helper, and weighs in on the hiring decision.
- Now that the helper is hired, the baker needs to manage helper. The baker is not only the expert, but also a manager who needs to delegate work, oversee quality of work, and mentor the helper. The business continue to pick up at a fast pace. The baker continues to produce exciting products, and never seem to get tired of learning and trying. She is really talented and a person of integrity that you can trust. You know that if she quits, then it will really throw havoc to your business operation but also you will lose that incredible talent that you have relied on. You offer her a raise but also a stock option and treat her as a partner in the business. The baker is enthralled to receive the offer and continue to be royal to your business.
- The baker has now been promoted as a head baker who now manages another full time baker, as well as, a few helpers. The head baker not only manages a handful of people under her, but she is now responsible for making sure that goods are produced in quantity, but the quality expected.
Let’s now take a look at these various levels of the organization.
Intern. To best prepare juniors and seniors, many colleges and universities offer internship as electives for students to earn. These internship allow students to experience real business environment where they can gain industry related experiences, build a network, and find out for themselves if this is the kind of career that they want to be in.
One of the misunderstood aspect of the internship is that students often believe that they can just show up without any preparation and expect that they will be trained and taught all the industrial skills and perform work that is comparable to their term project. There are indeed large corporations with robust internship programs that does just that, with dedicated staff to train and help them get onboard. And this is possible for large corporations since they usually have a big need to fill entry positions to meet the growth of the company. Also due to shear size of the internship program, it also becomes cost effective. But these spots are usually extremely competitive. Some estimate that to get hired as an intern for Google, it is about 0.1% of chance. For most internships, it would be with small to medium businesses and such internship conditions are far from robust.
So what values do companies look for when they hire interns for 2-3 months period? As I mentioned, if the business is always growing and has a set of entry positions that needs to be filled year after year, internship program is a great opportunity:
- to get to know someone
- to make sure that he/she has the solid basic, foundational skills
- to validate their passion, curiosity, perseverance
- making sure that the person is a good cultural fit for the organization and the team
But for most small to medium businesses, they usually look for extra hands that can lighten up the load of the existing employees so that their existing employees can focus on better value generating work. And these internships usually are in the form of apprenticeship. That would mean, at the least, you need to find out specific tasks that you may be involved during internship and make sure to equip yourself with that industry specific skills so that you can begin the apprenticeship once hired. Otherwise, not only will you less likely to get the internship, but even if they do hire you, this would mean that the valuable time of existing employees would have to be spent on you to teach you those skills, which just is not feasible in terms of ROI to have that investment evaporate 2-3 months later when the internship ends, unless they hire you as a full time employee, which is a less likely outcome.
Coordinator / Associate / Junior. These are the entry positions given to recent college graduates. The business knows that these graduates have good potential to generate values, but they also know that these graduates will need lots of training, onboarding, and mentoring, to be able to then maximize the return.
In this competitive world, just how it was best to be equipped with industry specific skills as an intern, same goes very true for these entry positions. If you had the internship where you learned and gained that industry specific skills, you have the advantage. But if you didn’t, and even if you had the internship, it is best to equip yourself with industry specific professional certifications. Especially in tech areas, all of the major tech companies, such as Microsoft, Oracle, Google, Adobe, Salesforce, Apple all offer their own professional industry specific certifications. There are also other credible certificate issuing online learning websites like Coursera.org, edX.org, and Udemy.com, of which, my favorite is Coursera.org. These cerfications not only equip you with the industry specific knowledge, but also give the business assurance that you do have certain capability to perform the tasks that require those skills. Best of all, the business won’t need to spend extra time and resources to teach you those skills.
While being at this entry level position, in addition to absorbing skills, you would also get acclimated into that business’s processes and culture. Most organizations are top down, meaning, all important decisions are made well ahead of time, from top, then the budget and resources are allocated, and each department executes the work in a coordinated, symphony-like manner, between different functions, which culminates to creating the final product. You will probably get inserted right into the team that has ongoing projects. The team lead, your manager, would onboard you and start assigning small tasks, to test your skill set and work ethics, to minimize the risk of failing which could impact the work and the team. The tasks are usually simple, direct, no room for much creativity, and with expectations to be done in certain way that has been done in the past. This onboarding will typically last about 6 months to a year, as you learn the process and culture, conform to it, and get embedded into the organization. As you accomplish those small tasks reliably and even robustly, over delivering, you will gain more trust from your manager and teammates, and with the trust, larger and more critical work would be assigned.
Professional. You have spent solid 2-3 years of not only reliably delivering the value for the organization, but also learned the organization’s priorities, its value creation process and how work flows through different functional areas and to your own team, as well as, the culture of the organization. As you continue to deliver the valued work, proving to your manager and your teammates that you can deliver the expected value or work on-time and with consistency, you are trusted with more meaty work. Your work is still very much focused in a specific area with specific focus but you are now able to execute the work with some authority and able to contribute your own creativity into the end product.
What often ends up happening at this stage is that people begin to get complacent with the work and the organization. By this time, you know how work is done, what is expected of you from your manager and your teammates. To a degree, the complacency comes with conformity, and acceptance of the culture and process. This is because, in a typical medium to large corporations, by its nature of layers of hierarchies and bureaucracy, checks and balances, the red tapes, the work just doesn’t move as fast as you would want it to be. This produces huge waste and inefficiencies. You begin to feel that you are just a cog in a wheel, spinning away, feeling that that pool of passion is drying up. You really do like the brand and the work, and to a degree the compensation, but you feel stuck and helpless. This usually forces one to be complacent and stops further development of skill set, which then causes downward spiral for the individual as well as the business.
Another big misbelief is that somehow people expect the business to spoon feed them new skills. Again, in some large corporations where innovation is their key value, they tend to heavily invest in the talent development. But the tough truth is that, in most corporations, even the larger ones, workers are usually replaceable, and that when the business weighs the ROI of hiring the new talent with proper skills vs training existing existing employees, and if the formal outweighs the latter, then the worker is likely to be replaced. You might think that this is cruel, but the reality is that, the business’s goals is to manufacture the competitive value, and that competitive value will always need new skill set. So for its own survival, business has no choice but to quickly hire the talent with new skill sets.
So how do you continue up the robust career advancement? Make the learning your best friend and a new hobby. This should not come as a surprise, especially if you are still passionate about the career you are building. Passion and learning goes hand-in-hand. If you have the passion without wanting to learn more, then it is likely that you are not passionate. Then, how do you make the learning happen and continuous? Make sure to keep the tap on the industry that you are in. Follow the industry leaders and see what they are excited about. Find what innovative companies are unveiling as their newest value for the consumers. Then spend time learning it in-depth, and create small working prototypes that deliver some tangible value for public. Record your findings and share them out with public via your own blog, YouTube, and podcasts. Making your learning useful for general public by making it available for the public to consume. Not only are you doing some good to public, but this builds your personal brand, which is a key in developing successful career.
All of the above mentioned venus are so much possible thanks to advancement in media technologies like YouTube and podcasts. More and more corporations that hold enormous conferences make their entire recorded sessions available for general public that would otherwise have cost thousands of dollars to attend. For example, Salesforce puts out a conference called Dreamforce that peaks with over 150,000 attendees. Adobe puts out two huge conferences, Adobe Summit and Adobe Max. Google puts out a developer conference called Google IO. Facebook’s own developer conference, F8, is all available online. And of course, Apple’s own developer conference called WWDC (WorldWide Developer Conference) is all available online as well. So there really is no execute for not learning and get excited about what is ahead that will help create values that would improve the lives of consumers and greater human society, other than your passion is fizzling out, or that you are just being lazy.
Senior Professional. You have been the professional for over 5 years or more. You have been focused in one specific area and you can passionately and safely call yourself the expert in that area. Since you are so passionate, you continue to devote good chunk of your personal time learning and acquiring new skills, following new trends, and continue to make yourself useful to general public as well as building your own personal brand. As corporation shifts its focus to produce better value for its consumers, often requiring new skill set quickly, you are right there with that new skill set for the business to tap into, and it is all the more natural and even appreciative of business to tap into your skills as this will save so much time and effort acquiring new talent. Also, by this time, you are not only an expert in one area, but in multiple related areas as you have been morphing your expertise into many different areas as business needs morph as well. . In addition to different skill sets you acquired, having been in the industry for many years and in the business, you are well seasoned in knowing the pros and cons of the skill sets and tools, their cost and ROI, but also well knowledgeable in the overall value generating process that involve people, hierarchy, bureaucracy, workflow, budget, ownership, and marketplace.
This is also a good time to seek new opportunity in another company if the current business does not offer more challenges and opportunities to be able to leverage your abundant skill set and passion. The reason you may not be given more opportunity to grow is because business is not growing fast enough, or in many cases, does not grow at all. This means that your growth in the career development is also halted. Therefore, sometimes, it is inevitable to hoping off of the current bus and get onto the bus that is able to get more passengers and grow.
Team Lead / Manager / Director. Welcome to the middle management! This is a big deal and not for a fainthearted. It require a steep learning curve, almost to the degree of earning an MBA. It will require a good dose of renewed passion and perseverance!
As you become more seasoned, reliable yet robust professional, not only an expert in various related areas, but also know about the delivery of the value for the business, and you’ve been accomplishing with flying colors, gaining praises from the business for keeping it getting ahead of the game. This is all thanks in combination to your passion, keeping yourself engaged in the industry, but also the business able to leverage your skill set and providing the opportunity and monetary compensations. Additionally, you wouldn’t have kept up if you weren’t a team player at this point. Actually, people like you for your professionalism, passion, and dedication. Along the way, they have solicited help and gotten swift and professional assistance. You also onboarded a few junior positions along the way on the process and navigating the bureaucratic system.
As the business grows, it needs to expand its capability to continue to deliver new, exciting, and useful values for its consumers. This requires creating new team to head up the new departments and projects. Also, it could be that your manager left and the position needs to be filled. Or that, you found a new opportunity in another company because the company is not growing fast enough, or your passion and skill sets are not leveraged enough, but this time, you decided to move ahead, into management, which is the natural next progression in the career advancement.
Being part of the management team of the business, also comes with hefty new responsibilities that you’d never thought be involved in. Since you’ve been such a champion, the business rewards you by assigning more managerial responsibilities and expect you to quickly pick those skills up. But on the contrary, this is far from truth. Many assume the post vastly lacking the new skill sets required to be successful. In fact, these managerial skill sets are so vast and essential that one would go to graduate school and spend two full years learning and earning the coveted MBA degree. If you are indeed serious about career advancement, MBA will really help you equip you from personal management, to budget management, and strategic management. At the same token, if you are the owner of the business, you would already be involved in these areas and self mastering them all. Let’s take a brief look at these skill sets:
- Team Management. Up until this time, you may have been only focused on what you are able to deliver. But for the first time, you are now entrusted with the team, the large asset for the business, and expected to produce equal or better value. You no longer can care just for yourself but your team’s well-being and their performance and deliveries, and maximize their ROI on behalf of the business, just as how you would if you were the owner of your own company.
- Staff Development. To maximize ROI, you need to make sure that they are well set up for success. That would mean that their specific skill sets are well developed, their morals are high, and most importantly, you can trust each team member to deliver what is expected of them and be able to entrust with the tasks. One pitfall of a professional becoming a manager is that since you were the expert, the perfectionist, you might have hard time seeing the half-baked goods and not be able to delegate the tasks but rather do them yourself. But as a manager, your job is to equip your team and delegate the tasks so that the value can be generated on time, within quality and budget limit, all while not grinding yourself and your team to ground.
- Staff Hiring. Another key responsibility for being the team lead is hiring the talent to increase capacity, capability, or to replace existing position due to vacancy. Hiring process can be divided into two steps: 1) preparing the job description, 2) interviewing the candidates. Job descriptions are usually well written to cover all aspects of the position and assumes to hire the perfect candidate does it all. But the reality is that this is rare the case. In response to that perfect job description, many resumes are exaggerated almost to a degree of misleading. So it really then comes down to the actual interviews to gauge their real skill set. Interviews should be prepared in advance with questions that can help you gauge their technical skills, work ethics, communication skills, work management skills, and finally the cultural fit. If the candidate has the portfolio of his/her own current work, or better yet, made public contributions, all these aspects will help determine the best candidate fit for the position. Many top entrepreneurs mention that one thing you must do is to surround yourself with smart people, people whom you can learn from. This is especially true for startups or company that is growing fast. But in an established business, cultural fit is as important than the smarts. Ultimately, you want someone who is an expert in the job area, hard working, that can deliver above expectation, yet humble and always open to new ideas, empathetic, and equipped with unhindered passion, someone you could look up to and learn from. But such candidates are rare because they are highly competitive, and likely be expensive.
- Work/Project Management. As a team lead, you will be responsible for intake of the work on behalf of the team, to make sure that the work that is accepted is something that the team is capable of delivering, on time and on budget. This means that a lot of your time will be spent on meetings with other teams to determine what is asked of and negotiate the work so that your team is best set up for success. This work management, or project management, is very well defined and disciplined area of study for initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing of work for a team to deliver specific goals with success criteria. There are ton of books that you can grab, like The Fast Forward MBA in Project Managemen. Depending on the team structure, you may be the one tackling the project management. If you own a larger team, you would have a dedicated role, a project manager, to perform the project management tasks. Again, the key here is delegation, supervision, quality monitoring, and trusting.
- Budget Management. In addition to the team itself, as a team lead, you need to also manage the budget assigned to the team. There are usually two types of budget, one that is operational to keep the lights on, and one that is project based. The operational budget could include team outings to boost their moral, travel to attend conferences and training. It could even including purchase of computer hardware and software needed to equip your team to be more capable. The project based budget goes directly into the value generating work. These are usually planned work that the team needs to accomplish. The budget could also include hiring of vendors or agencies to do the heavy lifting that the team current does not have the capacity for or not yet capable of. When you initially assume the post of the manager, you may inherit the budget and need to figure out what is assigned and left over, and how to best use that budget to further the interest of the business for the remainder of the fiscal year. But soon enough, you will be involved in planning of the next year’s budget, usually based on the previous year’s use, as well as, the work that is being planned for future. This usually involves you creating budget proposals, which outlines what work needs to get done and how it aligns to the organization’s goals, as well as, the resource needs, broken down by their details. These budget proposals are then vetted and hashed out by the top level executives, based on the priorities.
- Strategic Alignment. Last but not least, your job as a manager is to fully absorb the corporate mission, its short term and long term priorities, and disseminate them to your team to make sure that everyone is fully aware and aligned. This will also ensure that all of the different parts of the business are also aligned and allows all action to lead to yielding the goals.
VP/SVP/EVP/President/CEO. We are now in the realms of upper management, where you would be in charge of an entire functional area, multiple managers or directors reporting to you. This is the place where you play more of the strategic and visionary role for the business, looking ahead one to three, to five years ahead, and help your manager, whether it be Senior VP, or CEO, to shape the future vision of the business, and then help execute that vision by equipping your teams with skills, technologies, planning, and budget.
Though in large corporations, more often than not, these high level senior executives, the professionals that know how to operate the business, gets hired from outside, and usually very much detached from the actual day-to-day work, engaged mostly in talking the talks instead of walking the talk. They would come up with certain solutions that has company-wide impact that moves enormous resources to realize that solution in 2 to 4 year period. More often than not, the end result is usually lukewarm. These professionals would then simply move onto next big gig in another company, and get to do that all over again. I understand that they are humans too, with 24 hours in a day to spend, just like you and I, and won’t be able to keep up with everything there is to the business, but I still feel that it is utterly important that such key role should be extremely capable, not just on paper, and well rounded knowing every corner of the business, so that they can set right priorities and make informed decisions.
Essential Soft-Skills for the Successful Career Ahead
You may be well prepared technically, that you have the degree, the skill set, ambition, and passion to plow ahead, but there are still many soft-skills that are not taught in schools, which are so crucial to success of a career, that often times, these key skills are simply left for you to just pick up. Without learning these essential soft-skills, you will likely run into painful trials, possible interventions from your own manager, to only then pick up these skills. For some, they may not ever realize what it is that they are doing wrong, negatively impacting their performance and possibly losing the opportunity to advance ahead. We often call these skills as experiences. But these can be taught. In fact, they must be taught before one immerse into the career.
Work Hours. Unless you work for a startup that may require you to work extreme hours, most businesses have set operating hours, like 9am to 5pm. They have certain expectation of your availability that is usually depends on the nature of the work. The key is that you want to make sure that you are delivering little more than what is expected of you. For jobs that require strict 9am to 5pm hours, you want to target 8-8:30am at the minimum to clock in, and 5:30-6pm to clock out. This requires the discipline in a form of habit. Not only will this help avoid the huge traffic that builds up at 9am, or 5pm, but you are also showing extra effort, that you strive to give more than what is expected of you. Of course, this effort won’t help amplify if your work does not perform. Mike Bloomberg, the three term major of New York City, famously mentioned in a Vanity Fair interview that “God is my witness, I’d never thought I’d be the smartest guy in the room. I did think that one thing I could compete on is, I could come in earlier than you and stay later than you, and if we both get the 24/7, okay, at least, we’d split the business. But my strategy was that I was always the first one in, always the last one to leave, and the longer you are there, the luckier you get. This is not a rocket science stuff.”
When business doesn’t enforce strict hours, and as you get comfortable with the culture of the work place, there is a chance for one to abuse it, initially unintentionally, but then bad habits get formed, and soon enough, become greedy, and exploit the system. Sooner than you thought, this catches on you, impacting your work negatively, and possibly cause intervention from your manager. Not only is the business paying you every hour that you agreed to work, but it automatically becomes violation of the contract if you don’t perform the work in the reasonable and expected hours, which could set the ground for dismissal. The goal here is to make sure that you build the discipline needed to set yourself up for success, which is delivering little more than what is asked of you, be consistent and reliable with it, and your hard work will be amplified, which will help open more opportunities.
Managing Free Time. Sometimes, happenstance, you’d get some free time to kill, maybe due to the pending work that hasn’t been completed in order for you to start, or waiting for the next work to be assigned to you. You would be so tempted to easily use that time to watch soap opera, drama, netflix, funny cat videos. Actually, you should be very worried if you are not aware any incoming work. If this is just a small gap, then make the best use of this golden opportunity by learning things that you always wanted to that is job related. In this day and age, there are so many videos of conferences and sessions that are available online, completely free, that you can watch and learn. Remember, as long as you are working during the work hours, you should not assume that it is some free time that you could do anything with. The business is paying for every second of it and your job is to make the most out of that investment and use them towards generating current or future value for the business.
Email. I cannot stress enough how important communication skills are at the workplace, but that not too many are taught formally or knows how to do it right, let alone make it their competitive advantage. Among the key communication channels, emails are the most common channel of communication, period. In average, we send and receive over 120 emails a day, and spend 6.3 hours on writing and consuming them. Besides the person-to-person interaction, this form of communication is how we are then represented, considered, and understood. So it is utmost important that one learns how to do it properly and make it a personal brand differentiator so that your intention and your work is understood better, liked and even get appreciated.
- Subject Line. We all have limited time, especially there are over 120 emails to check on a day. I personally recorded about 400 work related emails a day at peak days. So, especially when we fight to get attention from our recipients, subject line is where our emails make first contact, and given about 2 seconds for the recipient to consider opening it now or later. Here is a list of tips you should consider when crafting the subject line:
- Be informative, concise in describing what the email contains, and what action the recipeint needs to take.
- Use Importance flag in Outlook to note that the email is important. Emails with this flag should have tangible negative impact if missed or not acted immediately.
- Use all caps prefix such as “PLEASE READ”, “APPROVAL NEEDED”, “URGENT”, “TIME SENSITIVE”, to denote the type of urgency.
- If your email contains confidential information, it is legally affective to use prefix such as “PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL” to protect them from being used against you. Other times, just having “CONFIDNETIAL” will do the job of emphasizing its nature to its recipients.
- Don’t abuse the use of Importance flag or prefix. If you do, people may consider you as paranoid, and your personal brand will be tarnished.
- Body. The attention span for average people are pretty short, so it is not fair to always assume that recipeints will pay fullest attention to every word of the email. In certain occasions, very detailed email is necessary due to the nature of the topic discussed. But for more frequent conversational emails, it is best to keep it into a few paragraphs at maximum. Here is a list of tips to consider when writing the email:
- Be concise and keep it to a few paragraphs, like 2-3. For each paragraph, keep it to a few sentences. Use paragraphs to break down the email into different key points that you want to emphasize.
- Be helpful by including links instead of asking recipients to hunt them down. Included links will not only save the recipient’s time, but will allow both parties to be on the same page using accurate data.
- Include screenshots by using image grabbing tools like PicPick, so that recipients can see and assess right away. In many times, seeing is believing. Images are very powerful communciation tool. Though, don’t over do it. If the screenshots are not that useful then it becomes hiderance.
- Use bullets to highlight and sequence the points.
- Use bold, underline, all caps to highlight certain things that you want the recipient to pay their fullest attention to. Again, make sure not to overdo it.
- Read it thoroughly second time, and then third time, to catch any grammatic mistakes, hash out the sequence of the points you are trying to get across, and tighten up the email.
- If you are writing more formal email to a colleague or even to a client, it is best to open the email by having an emphathetic line, such as “Hope all is going well”, “Hope this email finds you well”, etc.
- The tone of the email should remain professional and appreciative. But if emails are more of a conversational exchange between you and your team, you can be more playful by expressing your emotions using emojis.
- Last but not certainly the least, do not, I repeat, do not hit that send button when you are writing emails while you are emotionally impacted. There is much greater chance that you might have written something that you did not intend. Before you hit that send button, take a quick break by walking outside and get yourself outside of that bubble, to give your reasoning side of the brain a chance to function. To that end, it helps to put an auto delay so that you have a chance to stop the email when needed to.
- Organize. Just like in real life, the more messy it is, the harder it will be to find things when we really need to. Same is very true with emails. Create folders based on the functional units, or type of tasks, and make a copy of it, so that you can get back to them when you have an answer. Also, mark the emails that are waiting for the reply back as “Unread” so that you can reference the unread count to gauge the queue.
- Search Filter. When we don’t know where we kept our emails, search feature will be your next best friend. In Outlook, a simple tips like from:”michelle” will help you find all emails that were sent from Michelle. hasattachment:yes will help you narrow down the search results that has attachments. Gmail also has similar search filters.
- Confirmation. We all have a bad habit of not being in the sender’s shoes. It probably took time and consideration write that email. Even if it takes a few days to have an answer, the best would be to reply to the sender with a brief message acknowledging that you have received their email, and that you are likely to get back to them by certain date, so that you can set right expectations with the sender. If you were that sender, wouldn’t you also love to get some sort of response from the recipient, that your email was read and that it is in the queue?
- Thanks. Emails are often used to inform people on the work accomplished. This is a great opportunity to recognize the work and thank those that deserves them. But one thing to be conscious about is whether to CC all of the recipients in the thank reply. Sometime, you do want recognize someone’s effort in front of everyone, but other times, it just maybe sufficient to show your thanks to the sender without necessarily CCing everyone and wasting their time opening that short thanks email that may be irrelevant for them to see.
Meeting. As complex as large corporations are, with so many wheels turning simultaneously to accomplish the goal of the business, mostly out of necessity, shear number of meetings are quite inevitable. Meetings are often necessary evil to sync up the work with others, to make sure that work is not done in redundant, minimize any damaging miscommunications, and making sure that all wheels are turning in the same direction, in the right order, and in right speed. Here is a list of few essential tips for running and attending effective meetings that could also be pleasant:
- Agenda. Be sure to share agenda, if possible, on the meeting invite well ahead of the meeting. One great benefit for sharing the agenda in advance is that not only it shows other that you are well prepared, but also it allows recipients a chance to process the agenda unconsciously. But do make the agenda concise, if possible, to the degree that one glance could show inform the invitees about roughly what topics and decisions are needed to be made.
- Size. Meetings with 2-3 people are usually the best as it will give plenty of time for everyone to interact contribute to the meeting. If the meeting involves 5-8 people, you will start to see subgroups start to form. This is not because we are bad and interrupt the meeting rudely, but this is just the human nature, wanting to be something, and contribute, not a recorder. You will also notice that not everyone will be able to contribute but a few, usually those that has bigger stake in the project, and rest sitting quietly and absorbing the discussion. If this is not arranged carefully, it will lead to huge inefficiencies and waste of incredibly valuable human capital. Over 8 people, this is no longer a two-way meeting but just one-way announcement, like a webinar of sorts, which is fine, as department meetings are held this way. If this is not a departmental meeting, but a real meeting, especially if it is a recurring meeting, then holding the meeting virtually would really help people to multitask and only participate when necessary, making the use of human capital much more effective.
- Length. I highly encourage 30 minute meetings for a group of 3-4 people, where everyone gets to participate and contribute, and since knowing that the meeting is pretty short, everyone consciously makes effort to discuss key topics and move the agenda swiftly. With a group of 5-8 people, where the meeting covers broader agenda, one full hour may be necessary. Anything beyond one hour is truly painful and need to be well thoughtout and justify the ROI as not only does it become very wasteful but people begin to lose focus, making it ineffective.
- Icebreaker. We are all emotional human beings and would love to be related with other human beings. So in the first 5 minutes of the meeting, to loosen things up, and give a chance for those that are running to late, share something that everyone can relate to such as the weather, weekend plans, holiday plans, or possibly recent events. But try not to go too deep into the rabbit hole as it will be difficult to get back out.
- Being on time. This one goes without saying. But sometimes you might have back-to-back meetings, where transition time could take 5 minutes. In such case, it is best to notify the meeting organizer that you are running a few minutes late. If you might run 15 minutes or more, with a huge apology, it would be best to reschedule the meeting.
- Listening. In any meetings, or in any communication with another human for that matter, listening skill really trumps the talking skill. People love to be heard. So do give enough chance for the other party to be heard while being an emphathetic listener. However this does not mean that you should let some people talk for hours. In such case, especially if you are an organizer, find the right time to cut into the conversation without offending the person.
- Takeaways / Next steps / Meeting notes. As the meeting nears the end, it is great to reiterate the takeaways with action items (or next steps), to confirm that everyone is on the same page and agree on who should follow up on the action items and by when. After the meeting is over, quickly do share the meeting notes including any decisions made and action items recorded. The meeting notes are useful in several fronts: not only is it useful for organizing the work, but also used as a receipt for people’s commitment to what was discussed and agreed upon.
Presentation. The more you climb up the corporate ladder, the more you will be required to present your team’s proposals, or report on the progress of ongoing project, usually for the upper management, or to the greater teams, all in th effort to sync up the wheels. If you haven’t done any presentations at all, or have a stage fright, doing a presentation in front of a crowd could seem daunting and almost impossible. But like anything in life, first time is almost impossible, but second time it is little better. Third time, much easier, and fourth time, you begin to notice the audiences and begin incorporating their feedback. By the tenth time, you probably could do it with your eyes closed, even throwing a few jokes at a time.
- Useful and entertaining. In most cases, if you are giving the presentation, you are probably trying to sell something or get buy-ins. Instead of just talking about the product or the topic, try adding other useful facts that people could appreciate when they learn about it. We are such a sucker for things that make us smarter. And to make it stick, make the presentation entertaining by including lots of visuals, with sprinkle of jokes that people could easily identify and relate to.
- Prepare well. The presentation is like a movie. It has a start, and an end, with strict time limit, and you have to make a lasting impression on your audience. To that end, the whole presentation structure should be thought through, just as if you are telling a great story that has intro, climax, and an ending. Then do a self dry run to test out the timing and topic. Then do another one in front of your close colleague. Then another one to another close colleague. Then do one in front of your manager. Then give one via webinar, if possible. You have now give that same presentation 5 times. You probably added a few things and removed a few things to make more compelling story. You are probably now ready to give one to a small crowd. It will only get better as you practice more.
Office Productivity Suite. It doesn’t seem apparent, especially when we probably used one or more of Microsoft Office tools like Word and PowerPoint, during high school and college, to write our essays and even given PowerPoint made presentations. We probably looked up how to do things on Internet and picked up a few tricks but probably not more advanced ones. No matter what area you would be working in and what function you would perform, Office Productivity tools are essential for collaborating with others. These tools are extremely powerful, so more features you know, the more it will make you capable. I urge you to get books or tutorials that covers the features of the Office suite from soup to nuts, so that when needed, you can bring it out from your toolbox. Here are some of the advanced features you should make available in your toolbox:
- Word. Key features to master are Track Changes to mark your change while keeping the original, create protected and fillable template, adding watermarks so that recipients know that the document is draft, or confidential, as well as, adding a field such as CreateDate onto header or footer to dynamically show when the document was last saved.
- Excel. If you are working on numbers, you are probably using Excel. In addition to using simple formulas such as =SUM(), you should learn more advanced formulas like =IFS, =VLOOKUP. For graphs, you should take advantage of sparklines to show trends. For dynamically sorting and summing up of a table of numbers, Pivot Table should come in super handy. When dealing with a large set of numbers, Freeze Panes allows you to make the first row and/or left most column to show all the time. Last but not least, Text to Column feature comes super handy when you need to separate data that are delimited by commas into their own columns.
- PowerPoint. If you don’t know SmartArts, it would be safe to say that you really don’t know PowerPoint. As I covered on what makes a great presentation, it needs to have engaging graphics. In the past, people used various shapes and graphics to tell the data story. But this was often tedious and required a lot of time to make it right. Knowing how important info-graphics are to presentation, sistarting 2007, PowerPoint is equipped with SmartArts that can turns data into engaging graphics at your fingertip. Another way to greatly enhance engagement and entertainment value of the presentation is using Animations.
Business Analyst. Regardless of which business area you would be in, you would be performing tasks that is ultimately handed off to another team member. So it is essential to know how to effectively perform the requirement gathering. Just like project management, business analyst skill is also very well defined and practiced area of business.
Personal Finance. As we climb up the career ladder, we start to also enjoy the money we make. We start to spend and consume, maybe renting fancier apartments, buying the latest iPhones or TVs, and going on an exotic vacations. This is all good and rightly so since you have earned it. But one thing I highly recommend right away is putting down at least 10% of your earning into retirement account, by purchasing Index Funds like FUSVX or FSEMX and forget that it exists. Why 10%? Usually we can get by without 10% without degrading our lifestyle. This will not only let you take advantage of the tax benefits, but also help you get closer to financial independence. Why Index Funds? You should read up all of great benefits of Index Funds from this not-so-little The Little Book of Common Sense Investing by John C. Bogle. There only handful of stocks that beat the entire market in the long run. When times are bad, all the weak companies go on bankrupt, and the survived ones, the strong ones will then take that market share. Plus, there is very little that the investment banks has to do so expense rate is extremely low. That means, more money will go into stock. Given that you will be in a long haul, Index Funds are one of the best choices.
Being Stuck: Burned-out, Depressed, Fearful, Bored
If you walked the aforementioned career development path, you must be a hard working, driven, and passionate individual, and hopefully also have been rewarded fairly for your contribution. You’ve been working for a corporation, the brand, that you strongly believe in and strived to make difference. But if you somehow feel emptiness, maybe because you haven’t gotten the next promotion, or the recognition that you feel you deserve, or that you feel you have become just a paper pusher, putting out mundane political fires that advances senior executive’s short term gains instead be able to focus on the long term mission of the business, and that you feel your hands are tied, feeling like wasting your time, not able to learn further, all of these are signs of being stuck.
The truth is that this is the place where you would usually land when working for a large corporation. Large corporations are usually slow to advance, slow to react, and heavily wired politically due to its century old bureaucratic system. It is also and prone to restructuring as new senior executives get hired every 2-4 years. Such restructure surely puts fear into the system, and makes you feel helpless and vulnerable.
Normally, you would try to look for another corporation that you can be of more service, and continue your corporate ladder. But maybe, for now, you are indeed comfortable with your current pay, your current position, work load, and the brand recognition your company carries, then we just need to address the fear. This is actually really simple to address. As long as you continue to be competitive yourself within your industry, building strong personal brand by contributing publically, as well as, have strong work ethic and always engage in generating value for the business, then you will always be of value to the business and there is really no reason for them to let you go. Even if they do let you go, you will be highly desired employee any business would want to hire.
Just keep in mind that happiness to life is really finding the balance in life, not necessarily just the work life balance, but all things “50% consumption and 50% creation,” the motto, which I try to live by. The ideal is truly finding the fun in the job, and make it into a game, just like how Mary Poppins described it in Spoonful of Sugar song. As long as you focus on 50% creation and limit to 50% consumption, you will never be bored and always will be able to stay creative, contributing to the greater world, which will help you find meaning and purpose in life. So go ahead, kick start that learning, don’t stop reading, transfer those knowledge into personal project, create something tangible that will be useful, that will help you establish your own personal brand. But also don’t forget to take a break from that creation, and enjoy all of wonderful creations that surround you. Continue challenging yourself and make yourself useful, just as Goethe once said brilliantly, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
Best of luck to your exciting career development journey ahead!