I get a ton of questions from folks related to “career navigation.” That is, how do you “set yourself up” for whatever’s next in your career, and how do you even decide what that is?
Let me start with this:
It’s an excerpt from “Let’s Talk Business.” It’s not 100% on-point as an answer to “how do I navigate my career,” but it sets up an important bit. It’s a little long – maybe get a coffee or something and settle in for a bit.
I have a friend who works for one of the major Las Vegas Strip resorts. In the property’s early days, it was still being run by its founder, and he leant a specific kind of vibe to how the property was run. For example, when the property first opened, one particular restaurant — a very high-end one — had been designed to the founder’s fairy exacting specifications. After visiting the restaurant on opening night, the founder demanded that it be closed and completely redesigned, a multimillion-dollar expense. The same kind of thing happened all over the property: a small pizza parlor’s china (plates and such) was placed in storage as the venue was re-imagined as a dessert and pastry shop, which served food on high-end plastic plates. Upon being served ice cream in a plastic bowl one day, the founder demanded that china be brought to him to review. The old pizza place’s china was brought out of storage — and mind, this was some high-end stuff to begin with, that the founder had previously approved of — but it wasn’t good enough. New china was ordered for the ice cream shop, which closed just months later to be remodeled into a clothing boutique. Upper management in the company just got used to this casual tossing-around of money.
Fast forward several years: the founder is gone, and the new executives primarily come from a financial background. They very much want to maintain the property’s five-star mission, but they want to do so without wasting literally tens of millions of dollars a year. And so they begin asking their senior leaders to crack down, examine unnecessary expenses, and “right-size” the company’s spending to meet the mission. For a handful of senior leaders, especially those nearing retirement, it’s not a fun time. They’re suddenly being asked to be more accountable, and to lead their teams to results rather than just tossing money every which way. Their personal morale crashes, and they start becoming a negative voice within their own teams. The situation gets toxic, and some are abruptly asked to leave as the company pivots toward its new “personality.”
Another story: I’ve worked for a number of pre-IPO startups, some of which I’ve been with through their IPO. As a small, pre-IPO company, you get a certain kind of “personality” in a company. There’s room for smart, aggressive people to make sweeping changes for the good. They share the entrepreneurial spirit of the company’s founders (or are one of those founders), and they want to “move fast and break things.” They’re constantly diving in, even in areas technically not their own, to try and “move the needle” and keep the company moving in a positive direction. They’re good people to have around, even if they can be a bit tough to take now and again.
But as those companies get a bit larger, they inevitably get a bit more rigid. Total Employee Flexibility is hard to pull off when you’ve got dozens of teams each executing on different missions, and that “move fast and break things” person starts to become a disruptive influence. It’s easy for them to dive in without having the full picture, because the company simply has _so much_ going on at any given moment. The _personality_ of the company begins to shift. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it is simply a thing. _Any_ entity’s personality changes over time, and companies are no different: they’re organic, living things in many ways. The brash teenager company someone starts with will eventually become a more measured young adult, and eventually grow into more deliberate and calculating adult.
For _you_, it’s simply important that you _work for the company you’re in right now,_ not the company _it once was_. Nostalgia has little place in the world of business, and you _have_ to recognize that companies change. Their mission evolves. Their way of doing business adjusts, sometimes slowly and subtly, and sometimes massively and deliberately. Look, I bring all this up because it’s happened to me, more than once, and the latest was fairly recent. I came into a small company — emailing the CEO was no big, jumping into another team’s problem was fine so long as I was helping make a solution. But the company grew, as companies do. Things changed. I had to realize that, unlike when the company was small, I no longer had the total picture. “Jumping in” was disruptive, because I didn’t have all the facts any more, much as I might have thought I did. Ignoring the org chart just caused pain for other people, and made me someone they didn’t love to see walking into a meeting. I had a choice: I could leave, or I could change.
When you were younger — say, college-aged — you probably had one or two friends who were the life of the party. They were welcome in any gathering, and they were loud, boisterous, funny, maybe a little overly intoxicated, and so on. They were perfect for that time and place. But you may have had one of those friends show up years later, perhaps at a wedding reception or a birthday or something else. It’s sit-com gold: that same loud, drunken party friend just doesn’t fit into that new time and place quite as well. They’re embarrassing. Everyone else has grown up a bit, and moved on; they’re still holding onto the past.
I’ve had to decide if I was still the jump-in-and-fix-things guy, or if I could change to be someone my more grown-up company needed _now_. That’s a tough decision. I’ve always been a “see the problem, fix the problem” person. When I find myself in a situation that no longer needs that kind of person, I’ve _always_ just got up and left, to go find a new company that needed the kind of person I was. And there’s nothing wrong with that: different companies need different kinds of people at different points in their lives. Or, I could see if maybe I was _also_ someone else, or if I could at least grow to become someone else, someone that the company needed _now_. Neither decision is wrong. The only wrong decision is to keep being the person the company _needed_ but no longer does, but to refuse to become someone the company needed _now_.
As I’ve written elsewhere, working for a company is very much the same as being in a relationship with another human. Once you’re in a good place, you sure want them to stay that way forever. Why would you want a good thing to change? But things _do_ change. It’s nobody’s fault, and it’s not inherently a bad thing. It might be bad for _you_, though, in that the evolved relationship is no longer the perfect fit that the original one was.
My advice: if you find yourself in a company that you _used_ to love working for, but are losing that feeling, then it’s a good time to sit down and enumerate _exactly_ what you used to love about the relationship. Be specific. Don’t frame things in terms of what you might not like _now_; focus on what you loved _then_. Once you’ve done that, really analyze _why_ those things have changed. Here’s an example: I once worked for a company that had a pretty open policy regarding expenses. “If you’re doing the right thing,” the official policy went, “and you’re being responsible, then go ahead.” As that company grew, and ultimately went public, things got a lot more “locked down.” I didn’t like the new locked-down company, and I eventually left. Looking back, I realize that the expense policy was kind of a touchstone for what I loved: the company didn’t have a lot of rules, and it gave me, personally, a lot of leeway to jump in and make a positive contribution. What changed was that the company — once public, and under a great deal more external scrutiny — simply had to be different. It couldn’t be as freewheeling. It wasn’t a teenager anymore, worried only about doing something cool. It had to be a grownup, observe a budget, and be accountable to others. At the time, that imposed a lot of restrictions that I didn’t enjoy, and didn’t feel I fit within. But I did the right thing: I left. I could have done the other “right” thing and adapted myself to be someone who could make a positive contribution under those new rules. Tone it down, move a little more slowly, and work _with_ others; at that point in my life, it wasn’t something I was able to recognize and do. I’m glad I didn’t just stay, turn myself into an unwanted disruptive force, and wind up leaving on bad terms.
Make sure that, when it comes to working for a business, you love the one you’re with. If you’re not, don’t expect the business — comprised of hundreds or thousands of other people — to be the one to change. If you can’t change so that you can continue to love the company you’re with, as _it_ grows and evolves, then it’s time to go. That might be a little bittersweet, but it’s not _bad_.
This is meant to kind of allude to the main point: your career is all about working with or for other people, whether they’re for-profit businesses or something else. You have a relationship with whatever entity you work for.
It’s kind of like the relationship you probably have with Amazon or some other online retailer. Why do you have it? Well, because, if you boil it down, they solve a problem for you. That’s the key with any non personal relationship: both parties need to have a problem solved. It needs to be a problem they actually have, and the other party needs to actually help solve it. If the “problem” Amazon was solving was “shipping is too cheap,” and their solution was to make it more expensive, they’d be in very few relationships, because pretty much none of us have that “problem.”
Same goes with your career. We know the problem your employer(s) solve for you: you need money, benefits, stuff like that. But what problem do you solve for them? Is it a problem they actually have?
Absolutely no business has the problem, “we need more employees.” None. Employees are a means to an end; they’re a step toward a solution, not a solution in and of themselves.
So look at your career: what problem, ultimately, is your career solving for? That’s the trick to navigating your career. And the problem you solve for will change over time, as you gain more experience, more context, and more ability to solve different problems. But the key is to know what you are a solution for, and put yourself into a relationship where the problems match the solution you represent.