The Strategic Career
Let Business Principles Guide You
Bill Barnett

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Introduction

Find the work you’re meant for and you’ll be better at it, your accomplishments will expand, you’ll be happier, and you’ll find personal satisfaction. You have the freedom to seek this work, but with this freedom comes the need to choose wisely and the risk of disappointment. The twin challenges of globalization and IT-driven productivity increase the pressure.

How to set your course? First, pick a field of work where you’ll meet your values, pursue your interests, and make good use of your strengths. That field is your target “market.” Know why you’re the best solution to your target employer’s needs. Then pursue a portfolio of initiatives to make your “product” highly competitive in that market and to grow your “marketing” muscle to uncover opportunities there. Execute that strategy with productive searches for opportunities that can get you started toward reaching those long-term aspirations. Make sound decisions about which opportunity to accept. Finally, follow good practices to check progress and stay on track.

This book shows how to chart your course through these activities. It presents a distinctive approach, drawing on business strategy principles for career strategy ideas. It shows you how to develop winning strategies and in the process build skill at career strategy. Much is at stake.

The starting point for this book was my experience as a business strategy consultant. In my twenty-three years at McKinsey & Company, I helped clients assess big strategy decisions like mergers, capital investments, and new product introductions. I not only served clients but also led the firm’s Strategy Practice. We pioneered new ways to help develop strategy—for example, game theory and uncertainty management, two concepts that now help people develop winning career strategies.

Even though I was a strategy consultant, my strategy career didn’t begin there. It goes back to my work on public policy issues in the State Department and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. It goes back to my strategy and policy courses at Harvard Business School and at West Point. It may even trace to my interest in chess and board games in high school.

This book also reflects my experience on the people side. I directed McKinsey’s recruiting on several MBA campuses. I ran the process to determine which associates my office would recommend for partnership. I led personnel committee discussions to determine the evaluations of partners in three other offices and then did the follow-up coaching. I helped others think through their personal strategies to have the most impact within McKinsey.

I regularly found myself in the role of career counselor. Junior consultants sought my advice when wondering whether to stay in McKinsey or leave. Friends and clients asked about their careers. Some asked me to talk to their children. Students in the business strategy courses I taught at Yale sought career advice. I would apply to their career choices the same business strategy principles I was teaching. I now know that that approach makes good sense, and I believe I provided constructive ideas, but looking back on that now, I see I was winging it. I was using the strategic approach without a career-centered body of knowledge behind it.

The field of business strategy is well researched and proven. Business school professors, consultants, and others have built careers based on their expertise in business strategy. I did.

What I’ve discovered is that although the specifics are diferent, business strategy and career strategy are conceptually identical. When people deploy business concepts to plan their careers, they come up with more ideas, better assessments of those ideas, better decisions, and stronger conviction. Applying business strategy concepts to careers is a fundamental innovation.

Executives who are involved with these business concepts in their day-to-day work know the concepts and easily relate them to career choices. So do the leaders of public institutions and charities. MBA students who are studying these concepts find the career connection a natural extension of their other classes. And people in professions, such as attorneys, physicians, engineers, and teachers, recognize and use these concepts. These people are this book’s target audience. The strategy tools work well for them.

I took this linkage between business and careers and established a new career strategy course, which I taught at Yale and now teach at Rice. I’ve used the same approach in many other counseling situations. I drew on those experiences to write this book.

Let’s go back a few years to the time when I created that first career strategy course. I was confident this was a big idea, but I needed to prove it. I needed to show that it actually would lead to better career decisions. I had nine months before the first day of class.

I led with my own expertise. I listed the strategy approaches I knew worked well in business settings—for example, enterprise visioning, development of a value proposition, market research, game theory, and scenario planning. I’d emphasized these topics at McKinsey and in the business strategy class I was teaching at Yale. They were the natural place to begin. I imagined how they might apply to careers.

Armed with these hypotheses, I looked for connections to my own career decisions. I interviewed people about their past strategy choices. Most important, I tried out my ideas. I sought opportunities to help people make career decisions by explicitly applying these concepts with them. I learned a lot from all these people. They were the most important part of my investigation. They became the sources for the first cases in the course and some of the stories in this book.

Rigor was critical to success in business consulting, so I also hunted for ways to approach career choices rigorously, with facts and logical discipline. The benefits of rigor in career choice quickly became evident. In both business strategy and career strategy, people who fully understand what’s going on do better than those who don’t.

I read into the topic. I explored the literature on careers and on related topics, such as the research of economists and psychologists into the sources of happiness, satisfaction, and personal resilience.

When I put all this together, I had the content for my first career strategy class. It went reasonably well, though it fell short of what I hoped to be able to do. I learned from that experience and from the students, learned from my ongoing career counseling, spoke to professionals in the area (executive search consultants and career counselors), revised the course, began writing this book, and taught the course again. Then I did all that for another year and then another and another. This book now embodies that collective experience and learning.

So how can business strategy concepts drive career strategy? I’ll illustrate that connection with previews of two of the stories you’ll see later in the book.

How many people get the chance to consider taking a COO or CEO position three or four times a year? Steve, fifty-four, does just that. The calls come from his professional network. And the biggest surprise about his network is its size—a grand total of three people. Can this be possible?

Steve knows that successful business strategies result from winning value propositions—the benefits a product offers to a target segment of the market, along with actions that deliver those benefits. He also knows that a narrowly constructed value proposition almost always is best, as long as the market for it isn’t too small.

With this strategic concept in mind, Steve framed a very tight value proposition for himself—what I call a personal value proposition (PVP). In his words, he targets leadership positions in privately held industrials—“operations-intensive companies who can benefit from significant performance improvement.”

Steve’s PVP is narrow, but clear. Three people know Steve well, understand his skills, and know where he’d fit. Two are leaders of firms who invest in companies like Steve’s targets, and one is a search consultant who focuses on similar companies. Beyond viewing him as a potential candidate to fill a job, they value their relationship with him. Seldom interested in the job they call about, Steve always tries to provide useful insights about the position they’re filling. Calling Steve is time well spent.

Here’s another situation where business concepts are guiding a career. Imagine you’re a management consultant with a top-tier firm who expects to be elected a partner within the next year. Out of the blue, you get an appealing offer to join a highly regarded company. You make the startling decision not only to decline that offer but also to resign from the consulting firm and look for something else. What could make you do that?

That’s what happened to Isabel, thirty-three, who discovered some surprises when she applied her strategy skills to her own career. One tool she regularly used with clients was to construct a matrix to rate alternatives against objectives in a rigorous way. When she applied this tool to herself, she realized that the consulting life that had been a perfect fit a few years before no longer matched her needs. She still valued colleagues, client relationships, interesting problems, and the professional culture, but she was troubled by her difficulty tamping down the intensity of her job and by the time spent away from her children. These issues may have been in the back of her mind already, but until she consciously evaluated her current situation, she hadn’t recognized how much she’d changed.

Isabel wanted the new position only if there was a plausible path to the top. As she would when conducting business scenario planning, she tested that path by looking ahead five and ten years and imagining how things might develop. Once she realized that advancement would require transfers to different cities, she knew she had to turn down the offer. Moves like that were unacceptable. They’d torpedo her husband’s career.

No one can know what Isabel would have done without this rigorous assessment, but few people quit when near partner election. Her assessment gave her the strong conviction needed to act. She says it best: “Call me crazy, but in a year when jobs were scarce, I decided to quit and look for a job! Putting it on paper made everything transparent and easy. . . . The assessment took the emotions out.” Isabel then adopted a similar approach to look into alternative fields of work, to identify specific opportunities, and then to decide to accept an offer.

Isabel conducted a career strategy study. Steve was intuitive. Those assessment processes are very different, but both of them use business strategy concepts to plot careers. Both people are highly capable. That’s essential to success. Strategic thinking allows them to make the most of their talents.

This book fleshes out Isabel’s and Steve’s stories more completely, and tells what happened to thirty-one others. All these people care about their work lives and hope to accomplish a lot. They’re ambitious. Most used sound concepts to guide their strategies and now enjoy the results. A few failed to do that and suffered the consequences.

The surprising job offer was the trigger that led Isabel to reassess her career, but you don’t have to wait for something like that to get you started. Let this book be your trigger! Let this book become the stimulus that leads you to a fresh career strategy.

There’s another way this book draws on my management consulting experience. The success of an idea is defined not just by its intellectual accomplishment but, more important, by its impact. No one retains a consultant without expecting to do things differently and to benefit from that change. And no one picks up a career book without looking forward to better decisions and enhanced prospects.

I hope you’ll use these concepts to develop your winning career strategy. Many people who’ve seen these concepts did just that. They took the ball and ran with it.

I’ve also seen people who liked these ideas fail to take advantage of them. Some assumed they could benefit without going through the rigorous process. They skimmed the surface and got little back. Others couldn’t imagine how to begin. When I was with them in the role of counselor or professor, I could push for good applications. But I won’t be with you when you read this book. Explaining the concepts isn’t enough.

I know from consulting that people are most likely to reap the benefits from a new idea if it meets three tough tests: the idea must be comprehensive to build confidence and understanding, the way to execute the idea must be clear, and the presentation must be interesting and memorable. I resolved to write this book so that it would pass all three tests.

First, the book touches all the bases. You can go more deeply into some of these topics if you choose to (the academic research behind callings or how to use social media in careers, for example), but this book’s structure is comprehensive. If you apply these concepts to your career, you’ll be taking a highly strategic approach.

Second, the book demonstrates how to implement each career strategy concept. The fifteen chapters are—at a high level—the fifteen steps to a strategic career. Within each chapter, moreover, you’ll find step-by-step exercises or other activities to apply that chapter’s overall concept. The chapters and their associated activities put you in position to develop a competitive career strategy. This is a “how-to” book.

Third, stories of real people in real situations making real decisions show these concepts in action. Each of these stories reports on how the concepts worked for an individual, but names have been changed to ensure anonymity. In a few cases, I also altered nonmaterial facts when individuals asked me to. I hope that you find the stories interesting, that they stimulate your thinking and imagination, and that you naturally begin applying the concepts to yourself.

Notice this last point: you’ll need to apply the concepts to yourself. This book helps build career strategy skill. It doesn’t provide the answer that’s right for you. Craig, whom you’ll meet later, summed up what he’d gotten from our discussion this way: “I sort of hoped you’d say, ‘Here’s the deal; here’s how to hit it big.’ But no. What we’ve done is think about how we got here and where we are. I got a perspective on the future. I thought it through and discovered conclusions.” There was no way for me to give Craig his answer. I couldn’t know what was best for him. I did provide ways to help him structure his thinking and ensure that it was complete. That’s where his conviction and confidence came from. And that’s exactly what I hope you’ll get out of this book.

.   .   .

This suggests a question that may already have occurred to you: “If I read this book and seriously engage in the exercises, will that help my career?” It’s a fair question, but also a hard question.

Different people experience different outcomes, and there are good reasons for that. Some people must confront pressing decisions, unlike others who have the luxury of time. Differences in urgency naturally lead to different decisions.

What people bring to the party also differs, sometimes by a lot. Some people already know themselves reasonably well and are familiar with their field of interest. They lack strategies, but when they apply the exercises you’ll see in this book, they understand their choices, make commitments to that field, and draw up concrete plans. They can’t be absolutely sure that’s where they’ll find the happiness and meaning they want, but those plans both increase their chance for success in that field and put them in a good position to adjust plans and perhaps to shift direction as they learn from the experience.

Others start out behind. They aren’t close to being able to commit to one field or another. They first must reflect on their strengths and aspirations and explore different possibilities. They usually select a field to investigate in depth or to actually try out, without making a full commitment to it. Different starting points naturally lead to different results.

I have some data on results from a group of people who’ve used this approach in a comprehensive way—the MBA students in my Career Strategy class. That half-semester elective engages students in most of the material in this book. Some register for the course to help land a great job offer before graduation. Others have that job, but want a long-term plan.

On the first day of class, their career strategy skills may not be much different than yours. They’re bright, they’ve had good work experiences, and they’ve completed most of their MBA courses. Most would make a good first impression on a potential employer, but few have thought strategically about their career or have imagined job search as a skill they can cultivate. Some were conducting their searches haphazardly.

My two most recent classes had a total of forty-three students. Here’s an overview of the outcomes.

First, the short-term: By the end of the course, almost all the students (forty-one of the forty-three) committed to short-term career objectives (a field of work, a role, or a specific position to target). The other two continued exploring possibilities. Of the forty-one who set short-term objectives, nine were in fields that were different or at least somewhat different from those they’d considered before. Thirty-five completed plans to achieve their short-term objectives.

Now to the long-term: Twenty-seven of the forty-three students adopted long-term aspirations. Of those twenty-seven, eleven set new directions. The others already had the ideas in the back of their mind, but had never gotten serious about pursuing them. Twenty students prepared plans to move toward their long-term objectives.

These are good outcomes. I can’t promise you a career epiphany, but if you apply these concepts, you can expect results similar to the results these students found: deeper insight and the prospect of making commitments and setting plans to get there.

Even if you’ve never thought much about career strategy, you have one. Your strategy is the net result of your experiences, your skills, and your knowledge, together with the future options and limitations they imply. If your current strategy feels incomplete or wrong or if changes are coming, you need a new strategy. Deploy the same strategic concepts you would if you were developing your institution’s strategy. Use at least the same level of rigor. Be your own consultant. Think of Yourself, Inc. as the client.

This book is your step-by-step guide to that assessment. As you see in Figure I-1, the first four parts of the book show you how to develop a winning career strategy, and the last part shows how to pursue that strategy over time or how to adjust when things change.

FIGURE I-1   Architecture of the Book

Part I shows you how to set long-term direction. You’ll see how to recognize your fundamental values, spot distinctive strengths, identify and evaluate fields of work, and integrate all that into the personal value proposition you hope to build over time.

Fundamental strategy is more than a direction. Part II shows how to set the long-term plan of initiatives to reach that long-term target aspiration.

The first step in this long-term plan often is a search for the right opportunity to get started. Or there may be other reasons to seek a new opportunity. How to identify opportunities and how to get offers is the topic of Part III.

Next comes the decision whether to accept an offer or keep looking. Part IV shows you how to evaluate alternatives against objectives, manage the associated uncertainty, and decide what’s best.

You’ll like some of the things that happen in your life, others will disappoint, and all those events can take your eye off the ball. You’ll benefit from tools to keep yourself on track as you deal with these challenges—the subject of Part V. These tools include a personal annual report on your progress, and practices to build resilience in the face of disappointment.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Each part builds on the one that came before it, and most of the chapters in each part build on the ones that came earlier. Moving through this sequence is logical. I encourage you to go through the book in this order.

As you do that, I also encourage you to be flexible. The insights you gain in a later section may lead you to revisit work that you did earlier. Learning leading to more learning is natural. Strategic thinkers engage in this style of iterative learning all the time. I’ll elaborate on this at several points in the book.

Although following this sequence makes the material most powerful, people will be in different situations when they pick up this book. Some will feel urgency; others won’t. Some will be evaluating an offer; others won’t have started a search. With that in mind, here are suggestions about how to proceed if you’re in one of two situations.

If your job search is urgent, begin with most of Part I to help you get clear on your values, strengths, fields of interest, and long-term personal value proposition. Then turn to Part III on how to conduct a winning job search.

If you’re reading this book to help you decide whether to accept an offer, begin with Part I on your values and strengths, and familiarize yourself with the learning tactics described there. That will give you a solid foundation from which to deploy the evaluation methodologies from Part IV to help you make a wise decision.

One other tip: if you’re going to follow an alternative path, you’ll do best if you read the book through without doing the exercises, before focusing on one part or another. That way, you’ll be approaching your immediate challenge with a full appreciation of the strategic approach.

In the first sentence of this introduction, I pointed to a bold and hard-to-attain goal for career strategy: to find the work you’re meant for. Some people doubt that anyone can do that at his or her desk; they emphasize learning from experience and are skeptical about the benefits of rigorous career strategizing. Although I fully agree that experience can be a great teacher, the more important question is this: How to be a great student of experience? That’s where the strategic mind-set is most powerful. You’ll learn more from your experience if you target, pursue, and secure the right opportunities, periodically reassess how your work life is developing, and then make well-reasoned decisions about what to do next. No aimless trials, but no bullheaded insistence that you got everything right at the outset. Do this well, and you’ll be assembling The Strategic Career.

I’ll offer one final suggestion here in the introduction. Reading this book and doing the exercises will give you an excellent prospect of finding fresh insights and making better decisions. That will be a fine result, but you can do better.

My suggestion is this: Work together with someone else who is developing career strategy. Better yet, do it with several others. Read the book in parallel, do the exercises on your own, meet (or conference-call) after each chapter (or after a few chapters), share the ways everyone conducted the exercises, and critique one another’s work. You’ll encourage one another to do the exercises, you’ll learn from seeing how your colleagues implement the concepts, and you’ll benefit from their reactions to your work. You’ll be developing strategies together while building skill at career strategizing. Your experience will be something like sitting in my classroom. In fact, you’ll have created your own “class.”