Category Archives: New Assignment

Career Progression

When you look at a career in business you see that it is not a smooth line but a series of steps. Some are upwards, and some are not. The point is that there is movement, maybe not continual, but regular movement. There are always new roles, new responsibilities and new challenges to take on. There is not an exact science on when and where to make your moves and take your steps. There are however a few topics, traits and activities to be aware of when contemplating your career progression.

When discussing career progression it isinteresting to note the number of seemingly opposing forces that will act on a career. The first of these dichotomies will be how long or how short each business assignment’s duration is. Many prospective employers or managers like to look at an individual’s past assignment durations to get an idea of how long they may stay in their new role. A history of short assignment durations can indicate a “job hopper”, or someone who is just hopping from role to role. This could be for any number of good or viable reasons, but in general can be seen as a negative. A history of long assignments can also be negatively looked at as someone who may be “too conservative” and either cannot or will not take on new or added responsibilities. There is always the search for the perfect balance between the two extremes.

As I have noted in many past articles, I am something of an old school throwback when it comes to business. There was a time where businesses wanted candidates and employees that had a broad background and experience set. This multi-discipline type of background was seen as an indication that the employee or candidate had the capability to be flexible in what they were asked or needed to do as well as were able to take on other and greater responsibilities. The idea here was that businesses were looking for the best overall business “athletes”.

Now it seems that this approach is no longer the case. The business world seems to have evolved to a level of specificity where the search is no longer for the best potential overall athlete, but the best within that specific discipline. This approach now brings into question whether or not it is good to search for or even accept new roles that require a change of discipline. If a business is looking for a marketer, they are now looking for the best marketer available, and more specifically the best marketer in their specific market for their specific product type, not the best athlete who has the capability to not only become the best marketer, but also has the capability to go on and assume roles with greater or broader responsibilities.

While this approach may provide a better short term or immediate return to that specific part of the business, it does tend to generate somewhat more one dimensional (single discipline) career paths and leaders. As leaders hit the senior level positions where they will be required to provide broader leadership, they will have a narrower experience set to draw on. I am not proposing that career discipline changes (Marketing to Finance, or Engineering to Sales, etc.) cannot or should not be made. What I am saying is that the current business climate does not encourage or reward these types of career changes in the same way that they were in the past. It is something to be aware of when contemplating potential changes and progression.

Another aspect of career progression will depend on the relative perception of the business aspect that you are currently in. What I mean here is that if you are associated with a business unit or function that is in relatively high regard, the opportunities for continued career progression in that specific business unit or function, or even other business units or functions can be stronger. As an example, look at Apple. They had been so successful under Steve Jobs leadership that they primarily looked to members of his team to assume the leadership role to assure continuity and continued success. They looked internal.

When a business unit or function is not performing to a desired level, it unfortunately seems that all members of that team whether it is justifiable or not will be associated with that poor performance. In most cases like this an organization will look external of that business unit or function for its next leader. These changes of leadership events can be opportunities for leaders outside of the poor performing business, but unless they are in a similar business function this again would seem to run contrary to the previous point I made earlier regarding the apparent single discipline verses multi-discipline experience preference in candidates.

Either way, there will always be the question of the need for continuity playing against the need for new approaches in a leadership role. Both can be either opportunities for or detriments to career progression. Knowledge of both the business situation and perception of the business will be needed in order to ascertain what or where may be the next career progression opportunity.

Along a similar line here, I have always found that taking on a new approach change of leadership role has been beneficial to my career. I have taken to heart the advice of an executive that I received early in my career when I was pondering just such a move. The executive told me to never be afraid to take on a bad or underperforming business (he actually used the word “catastrophe”). He said that if something is truly in bad shape, that you can’t help but make it better. Across my experience in business, I have found this to be true far more times than not. These types of career moves can result in some of the most challenging of assignments, but in order to achieve the return of career advancement there will need to be the risk of taking on difficult performance objectives.

There are those that consider a proper career progression to be a series of upward movements and assignments with ever increasing responsibilities. This type of progression has not been my experience, nor has it been one that I have seen. There will inevitably be situations that evolve where there will simply be no opportunities for advancement. There may already be several high quality leaders in position and hence no new opportunities. On the opposite side of that equation, there may be several managers in place who may not be supporters of the leadership traits and characteristics that you want to employ. The business may be undergoing a contraction and along with that action there is a reduction in opportunities. For whatever reason there can be an opportunity logjam.

In situations like this it may be time to look for a lateral move instead of waiting to try and make a promotional one. In effect you can try and step around the business impediments to career progress. It may be possible to step outside of an underperforming business unit (where you may be associated with that underperformance) and get into a better performing business unit. Once outside of the poorly performing unit you may become eligible for consideration due to your past experience and knowledge if and when a leadership change is considered there.

Moving laterally in an organization can also provide monetary and earnings opportunities. Better performing business units can receive better bonus opportunities during annual reviews. Moving into sales or into different units within sales can provide better sales and commission opportunities. Some lateral motion for whatever reason should be expected in almost any career progression.

I will come to conclusion here without commenting on where a career progression may slow or even stop. You may be happy where you are and remain at that level of responsibility or you may not. Instead I’ll finish with a few quotes or axioms and let you decide.

Laurence J. Peter
and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, defined the Peter Principle as that the members of an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. The principle is commonly phrased, “Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.”

Robert Frost wrote: “By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss, and work twelve hours a day.”

And finally Sloan Wilson said: “Success in almost any field depends more on energy and drive than it does on intelligence. This explains why we have so many stupid leaders.” I suspect and hope that he was writing about our political system, but I thought I would throw that one in as well.

Good luck on your career.


Headhunters – dependent on your current employment condition the word can either strike fear, or hope in the heart of a business leader. If things are going well in your current role, and progress is being made you can be concerned about headhunters coming in and taking some of your team members for other opportunities. If things are not going so good, or if you have decided that it is time for you to find another opportunity, then headhunters are a good thing. And true to the probability of the jelly side of the sandwich falling jelly side down on the carpet (directly proportional to the price of the carpet) it seems that recruiters are never really around when you want or need them, but always seem to be there when you don’t.


Up until the time we actually start working we have been on a program that has definite goals, and definite time lines for our own progression. We have twelve years of elementary through high school, then we graduate and start on college. We have a nominal 4 years (maybe more) where again we graduate. We have achieved our goals. We may go on to graduate school, but even then we have a goal and a relative time frame. In business we are not so fortunate to have such a well defined plan for progression. In fact if times get particularly hard, we can be asked to leave our current business roles and have to start the progression over.


One of the best definitions of “luck” that I have heard was by Randy Pausch in his Last Lecture”. Randy Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon Institute who provided some significant and insightful observations in a lecture he gave after he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  In it he described luck as “when opportunity meets preparation”. I think that definition is also applicable to some extent when it comes to the management of our own careers. Very few of us go into a position with a true plan as to what we are going to do next. We know what we are going to do now, (it’s in the job description we just signed up for) but we really don’t know what we are going to do next. We spend our time preparing and gathering experience for our next assignment, but we are never quite sure when or where it will be. We are always looking for the next opportunity.


In times of economic expansion and growth companies also tend to grow and expand. This creates opportunities for individual growth and expansion as well. People are changing companies to take advantage of the opportunities, as well as leaders are being promoted from within their organizations to fill the new roles. In more difficult economic times companies tend to remain at current levels or even contract. While there will still be opportunities, they will not be as prevalent or pervasive as growth is much slower or in some cases non-existent.


In any event, this is where recruiters or headhunters come in. They make their living by matching those people with the proper preparation with those companies who have the opportunities. Theirs is a high velocity world. If they are not making the connections and matching the prepared with the opportunity they are not making money. Theirs is a time and effort role. They normally don’t get a large salary. They get paid for the completion of the placement regardless of the time and effort that it took them to complete it. This is the equivalent of working for sales commission only. If you didn’t sell, you didn’t get paid. It would probably inspire you to work harder at completing your assigned task as well.


They are judgmental because they have to be. If they judge you to be unprepared for the opportunity they are trying to fill, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. It just means that if they are going to get paid they need to find somebody who is in their opinion better prepared to fill that role. This can be frustrating if you feel they have judged you improperly. Get used to it. It is the way it works.


It is usually hard to create a professional relationship with a recruiter because they are so focused on the opportunities that they are trying to fill now. If they do not feel that you are a fit now, they will need to move on and talk to someone else who is. They will however take your information and keep it. That way in the future if they have an opportunity that matches your preparation, they can and will reach out to you. You can probably maintain contact, but I wouldn’t call it a relationship.


As time passes and you progress in your business or industry it is quite probable that recruiters will reach out to you. As I progressed they did in fact reach out and contact me as well.  I was fortunate in that early on in my career I got to participate in an economic and industry boom that provided many opportunities internal to the company I was working for. As such I did not pay a great deal of attention to the recruiters that contacted me. This was a mistake. Some recruiters knew of me but did not have my information in their files. I should have made better contact with them, even if I did not think I was going to need or use them.


After every boom there is invariably a more difficult economic time that follows. While I may have been known to recruiters I was not on their radar screen as a particularly interested party. It was my turn to try and reach out to them. I still had all my preparation but I was now in search of the opportunity, not the opportunity being in search of me. Without having your information in their files all of your search efforts were be hit or miss. If they had an opportunity when I reached out to them, great. If they didn’t, it was only then that my information was showing up in their files


Recruiters are not rude, but if they do not currently have an opportunity that matches your preparation set, they will not try to help you. Their business is not to help you find a position. Their business is to find the right person for the positions they have at that time. As I said, they are judgmental. If they don’t think you are a fit, they will move on. They have to. Regardless of how well you think you may be able to perform in that position they will continue to look for someone whose preparation better matches the opportunity.


Recruiters provide a vital function in that they try to provide the connection between your professional experience and preparation and a company’s opportunity. They live in a very quantitative world. If they are successful, or lucky, in having someone’s preparation meet their current opportunity, then they get paid. They are not there to particularly help you. You don’t pay them anything. It is the company with the unfilled opportunity that pays them, but only after they have filled it. If you do not fit the opportunity, they will not try to make you fit it. They will try to find someone else who does better fit it. If you are interested in an opportunity that a recruiter has approached you about, say so. If not, then say so as well. Respect their time as you would want them to respect yours.


With the advent of the internet and the plethora of job boards with all the opportunity postings it is easy to dismiss recruiters. I think this is also a mistake. Business is conducted between people. Whether it is the business of your current role or the business of finding your next role it will be the people and relationships that you know and have that will be far more important that the internet and the job boards.

Even if you are relatively happy with your current role and responsibilities, it is probably difficult to say what you next role and responsibility set will be. If and when a recruiter calls, understand what their role and incentive is. Even if the opportunity they are working on does not interest you, make the contact and provide your information. The next opportunity that they are working on could be the perfect one for your next career step. There may also come a time when you may want to be reaching out to them and it will be best to already have the contact in place.

Fear and Change in the New Assignment

Every time I have been taken a new assignment in a new organization, the first question that was asked of me was “What are you going to do first?” My answer was invariably the same one. I would reply “I am first going to learn”. I would give this answer to both the people I reported to, as well as the people that reported to me.


It is good to come into a new role with a rough idea about what may or may not need to be done. This helps you create the first action plan. What normally happens then is that both your preconceived ideas and your plan rarely survive the first encounter with the actual business realities of the assignment intact. It is then that you learn why the situation is in the state it is in.


Machiavelli noted that the two principle ways to govern a new organization were to either go live amidst the existing leadership structure, or to destroy the existing structure and replace it with your own. I have been in corporate cultures where both approaches have been the norm. The team replacement culture usually breeds a business culture of fear, whereas the more inclusive approach will create a more constructive environment for the business.


I have found that my personal preference is to go and locate amidst the existing structure. In this way you can facilitate and speed up your learning process regarding the business. The existing team will always have some stake hold in the existing structures and processes of the business, but in general they will also know that a leadership change has been made for a reason. That reason is to usually change the direction of the business. This is usually easier to do with a team that is familiar with you instead of one that is afraid.