Welcome to the Jungle: navigating your career

Recently, I was the keynote speaker at a Duke business school event. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago when I was sitting in that same lecture hall, wondering what my career would look like and how I’d navigate the corporate jungle.

When I was preparing my remarks, I thought about what I would tell my younger self to think about in preparing to launch my career. While I could probably write a tome on that topic, for the purpose of a keynote address I narrowed it down to three main points.

Be scared now or be terrified later

Take the classes and pursue the opportunities that scare you while you are in the safe confines of school. While I am a student and believer in Marcus Buckingham’s philosophy of finding and focusing on your strengths, I think it is equally important to familiarize yourself with those things that scare you. For me, accounting was the class that made me want to run away and drink heavily. While I would never have subjected myself to becoming an accountant, being familiar with those pesky acronyms — FCF, LIFO, SOX, PY, PPA — has helped ensure that I never have that deer caught in the headlights look in the boardroom. Don’t worry — you can avoid those jobs that focus on those topics that make you sweat. But simply being exposed to areas you’re not comfortable with now will make it easier once you are in the business world. Take the class or attend the lecture so you know where to look, how to find the answer, or better yet, who to call up and ask for help!

Choosing a company: look beyond the perks

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype during your first big job search. The company’s clout, starting salary, internal culture and assorted perks all weigh into the decision. But I advise aspiring employees to also get a handle on the fundamentals of how the company grows. No matter the size of a business or where in the world it is based, growth matters. It speaks to the future of the company and what sorts of roles and people are revered. While there are many formulas to use when thinking about growth, I recommend considering the most basic levers of Build, Buy or Partner.

Build: this type of company embraces innovation in its truest sense. It is creating new products or services. Big bets are being made on where the markets are moving to, and how to test ideas in an iterative fashion to make sure that the innovation matures to meet the market. Intellectual Property protection is a must in this environment. Technologists and other creative thinkers often reign supreme.

Buy: this involves acquiring other companies that have already built innovation and own their intellectual property. It often means the company is making a big bet on where the markets are moving, and they are buying into a mature position in that market. You may hear many discussions on APA, sandbagging, targets, multiples and golden parachutes. Finance professionals usually reign supreme in these companies.

Partner: companies partner with other companies to gain access to capabilities not in their wheelhouse. In practice, partnering is a practice that both “build” and “buy” companies possess. However, if you understand which capabilities are run internally versus through partnerships, you can better understand the core focus points of that company.

Since growth is king for all companies, looking at the dominant growth lever can help you understand how you fit with a potential employer.

Being smart will only get you so far

I get it. You’re smart. You got into a prestigious university and are doing well. But smart people are a dime a dozen in the corporate world. It comes back to the cliché that what got you here, won’t get you there. As your career evolves, the skill sets you need to grow and strengthen will change over time. You enter your first or second company reliant on your academic pursuits and your IQ or Intelligence Quotient. As you move up in a company, it’s often your EQ or Emotional Quotient that will propel you to success. The mere definition of management means that you enable a team to succeed. In order to do this successfully, you need to understand the people on that team — their career paths, their goals, their strengths — and find ways to extract their best performance. To do this well, it requires more EQ, and far less IQ. This is a muscle you either have or you need to strengthen to succeed longer term in most professions.

While my talk was focused on business students, I actually think these points could be extracted to inform many career paths. Learn and acknowledge your strengths (and weaknesses); take lead and evaluate a company based on how its philosophy fits with your capabilities; and, focus on supporting the success of those around you.