Monday, November 17, 2003

Observations on the Business World

Another Rice Grad writes about quitting his job:

Life is too short to do something you don't enjoy. I definitely believe that, and it's a lesson I've learned from this job. I'm making myself miserable working insane hours at an inane job where I never do anything substantive. I'd rather be a risk taker or entrepreneur than a corporate climber who has to depend on superiors' favor. This is particularly true while I'm young and can afford to take risks.

He has his situation nailed. There is no question about it, but starting at the bottom and moving up the corporate ranks just sucks. It can take literally years of mind-numbing work while you network your abilities to management so you can be considered for that next promotion, or catch the shirt-tail of someone else moving up the ladder. And these years of drudgery can end with absolutely no promotion whatsoever. I know people at one tech firm that have literally held the same job in the same cube for 20 years. The people who get the promotions don't have the same experience or ability of these cube dwellers, but somehow they do the right networking and politicking.

It's hard coming to the reality that in large corporations promotions are not based on ability. In my first position I won the "most outstanding" marketing award three out of my first four years. This award was voted on by the marketing and sales organizations - my peers. Despite this recognition, I received absolutely no promotions. I then found out that after four years and three awards that I was barely making more than new-hires coming out of college.

That's when I quit to join a start-up.

That was some years ago. Two large companies and one more start-up later I am back at a megacorp spending time looking out a window, but with a comfortable title and level of pay.

So what has my experience taught me? Here are a few rules that I have observed:

1. Corporations value people outside the company more than inside the company (this is usually true, but doesn't hold for organizations like UPS that only promote from within). Generally speaking, I have found that the unknown candidate outside the company usually gets a job over promoting the internal guy who's been slogging at it for half a decade. There is something mysterious and sexy about the external guy that the internal guy just can't provide (sort of like getting a mistress after years of marriage). I think this issue is also a reason why consultants who know nothing about an organization are listened to more closely than people who know the internal workings after years of experience.

So, I have found that changing jobs and companies moves you up the corporate ladder faster than slogging your way up (exceptions: if you are the son of the chairman or a "golden child", which I will post on another date).

2. It's Okay to Toggle Between Corporate and Start-Up - I actually learned this one from an MBA professor. Keep in mind that the vast majority of start-ups fail. His advice was to get the corporate job and get your financial bearings for a few years. Then spin out to a start-up. Repeat as needed.

This particular professor was in his 60s and had been doing this strategy for decades. He had worked in all sorts of large corporations and had started dozens of companies. He had been rich and broke numerous times, but he kept at it (he finally hit the big time and quit a few years ago).

This strategy won't get you inside companies that promote from within or take a dim view of company hopping, but I have found that most large companies want that "entrepreneurial edge" and are willing to hire start-up refugees. On the other side of the coin, most start-ups are usually started by people trying to escape the corporate dungeon, so there are usually no issues getting hired there (ideally, start your own).

3. Sometimes you have to grin and bear it - Unlike Rice Grad, I am older and have a family to support, so no matter how much I can't stand my current job, I am going to keep doing it and kiss the right @#$ to keep it until something better comes along. This sort of goes hand-in-hand with observation 2 above: you are going to work in large organizations so make the best of it: Say the right things to the boss. Politic with the right people. Even if your company is like Dilbert's, don't hang around the water cooler complaining since it gets to be known who's a whiner - post anonymously on a blog instead. You really don't know how long you are going to be there, so work the job like it has to last you 20 years. This means doing things that are boring and pumping up the ego of people you don't like, but just remember that sometimes a job is about paying the mortgage and putting food on the table and not "self fulfillment".

4. Network - I have already posted on this. This will land you the next job or the next round of funding for your start-up, so make it a priority.

Good luck to Rice Grad - I hope he finds what he is looking for.

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