Roads not taken: Considering the opportunity costs of career choices

Which track?

Most of my conversations with job-seekers focus more on finding jobs than on making career or life changes. This makes sense. My corporate clients are practical: they need to know if and how the candidate’s leadership skills, motivations, and competencies match the needs of the organization. Most of my candidates are not out of work; they tend to view their career as a linear trek up the ladder. They’ll ask if the opportunity provides more responsibility, challenge or pay.

And yet every step up the ladder has an opportunity cost: the road not taken. The conversation on “career changes” forces executives to ponder deeper questions relating to their basic motivations, aspirations, and dreams. What am I good at and why? What if I did follow my dreams? What are the consequences of not taking the big leap? How realistic are my aspirations? What’s blocking me from achieving them or even taking the first step?

Most of us don’t take the time to envision our future. The recent Great Recession forced many executives to re-examine their careers only after they found themselves out of a job.

When is the right time to ask these questions? Probably every year if you want to make sure your career doesn’t head off down a track you didn’t intend.

These are meaty conversations for career coaches, spouses, mentors, priests, and best friends – someone with no axe to grind, who has no other agenda than to help with your career choices and life goals. There are books written on the subject and you’ll also find links on the right side of this blog. Most of these articles or guides provide “tips” rather than start with the unique needs of the career-changer.

It wouldn’t hurt to open up to executive search consultants when you get the call – if you can find one that will care about you, the person, not you, the candidate. But the conversations need to start somewhere. If it doesn’t start here and now, then when is a better time?

Drilling down in interviews: Why do hiring managers talk instead of listen?

Research says that 64% of new executives hired from the outside fail in their new jobs, so how do we improve our selection process? Most successful leaders are taken aback when a hiring manager or recruiter tries to understand what makes them tick, and I mean try to really understand, because so few people in the corporate world try, even during a critical job interview. They’re too busy selling (as are most candidates). That’s why one of the best ways to recruit the best candidates, the hard-to-get candidates, is to drill down, understand how they got to where they are, and get to the bottom of their motivations. When you know they’re right for the job, great candidates will know it also.

Take China and Japan, two countries with critical talent needs. In Japan the danger is that interviewers, whether the hiring manager, executive search consultant or HR executive, tend to treat senior executives with the respect of an elder or become overly impressed with the executive’s track record of name brand employers which may or may not be relevant for the job. In the case of China, where everything is urgent, the short supply of talent and can lead to making the wrong trade-off decisions. Meanwhile, without better direction, the candidates themselves tend to let their status do the talking. So what should we be looking for? How do we know when the candidate has what it takes?

Successful leaders don’t just materialize out of thin air or hatch out of some top-ten business school. They somehow master their environment and emerge with a strong sense of who they are, while others come and go. So, during an interview, the executive will be taking stock of the interviewer while the interviewer does the probing. How much is shared depends on trust and the quality of the interviewer.

We would hope to hear some truths about the executive’s successes and failures, one or two watershed moments that defined his or her career. We’ll should looking for the how and why of his or her actions. This is described as ‘behavioral-based’ or ‘competency-based’ interviewing and there are books on the subject. But it’s not so easy and takes both practice and desire. Try to hear the executive’s description of the emotions around the experience: pain, humiliation, exhilaration, regret, satisfaction. You may hear about decisions or achievements, but try to learn about what matters most: how the individual mustered the wherewithal to make things work out against the odds, accept the hard lessons, and apply the learning.

You might hear about luck or good timing. But our job is to dig deeper and understand the true makings of a person’s success. Then, link these competencies to the critical needs of the job at hand. Is it that difficult to drill for the fuel that drives successful leaders? We’ve got to get better at it. Knowing that the person opposite you is taking stock, be curious, be real, and reach out.

Get me outta here: Pressure and cuts at tech firms leave talent disenchanted

Amidst layoffs — yes, they’re still going on — it should not be a surprise to anyone that employees feel frustrated and cynical about their employer. The bigger the employer, the greater the sense of frustration, according to my anecdotal observations. Pressure from Wall Street to lower costs is almost universally translated into lowering headcount: it’s the easiest and quickest way to please the Street. At the same time, the pressure to drive revenue creates a culture of “deliver or else.” Companies the size of HP and IBM need to create $10 billion in new revenue just to keep their investors happy. The running joke in tech companies is that if a line manager fails to hit their numbers for two quarters they’re out. When this Great Recession ends, look for this culture to continue, and for corporate cynicism to spike. 2010 will likely see a wave of corporate mergers take place in an effort to create global powerhouses and revenue-generating machines.

I hear GMs of big tech companies tell me that the fun is gone, that the spirit of innovation and that the ‘values’ at the root of the great technology boom are lost amidst the pressures to meet quarterly expectations. Executives at my biggest clients are whispering to me: get me outta here. They’re asking me to find the fun places to work, places where they can put their stamp on things. But before you complain, before asking for the start-up, ask yourself what you mean by “fun.”

It’s true that as technology companies grow in size, the pure-play technology-oriented enterprise — the company you always wanted to work for — naturally morphs into a more complex, dispassionate, commercial enterprise resembling the company your dad worked for. The technology idealogues get acquired by the corporate beasts. Business guys take over. This can spell doom or success depending on the leadership and the talent that is developed to meet the challenges in the market.

In my corner of the world, we don’t make a value judgement on size. There are big companies that stick their necks out and achieve great things and big (and small) companies that are a pain to work for. We look to the leader, not a company’s size, as the issue. As organizations grow in complexity, a new breed of leader – the model changers and transformational figures – need to be developed so that the needs of the market are met, value is created and employees have a reason to come to work. If you’re with one of these beasts hear the message: master your surroundings and stick your neck out. Hopefully, this defines fun for you. If this is not possible, heed your instincts and get out. Life’s goodies come in big and small packages. Look to the leadership.

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