The 2 defining choices for your professional future

You spent 4 years in college in a major. And maybe you spent a couple more years getting an advanced degree. Or maybe you were one of the poor souls (like me!) who spent more years than you care to remember doing a PhD. Guess what? A few years into your professional future, no one will care what it was.[1] Really.

So what will matter the most? It turns out that there are 2 defining choices for your professional future. These 2 choices will frame how, 10 years from now, other people will evaluate all the amazing things you’ve accomplished.[2] Understanding these 2 choices and clarifying them for yourself will help you decide which jobs to pursue and which to pass on (even though they look really interesting) and within a job, which projects to ask to work on (when possible) and which to pass on (when possible).

The two choices are functional role and industry.

Functional role

Earlier I wrote about the 4 broad functional roles in most companies: marketing and sales, research and development, operations, and finance and planning around other resources. A functional role defines the kinds of business-relevant outcomes you know how to deliver on. The more time you spend in the same functional role, the greater mastery you develop in producing certain kinds of outcomes and the greater ownership team members (or hiring managers) feel comfortable with you having. It is the more important of the two choices.

Within these broad functional roles like marketing are more specialized functional roles like “marketing communications” or “go-to-market” or “inside sales.” As you progress, it’s helpful to develop mastery in one or several of these specializations within one functional role, to develop a set of rare and valuable skills and capabilities, even as you grow more generally.[3] For example, if you developed unique consumer marketing expertise in a consumer products company but had a change of heart or had to move to a new city, you could still contribute to (and be a compelling hire for) a marketing role in a consumer health company or an auto company.

Industry

The second choice is industry. Earlier I wrote about how society and people have many needs that they’re willing to pay to be met; how business is an “organ of society” that turns resources into solutions that meet these needs; and how an industry is a group of businesses addressing related needs. The industry you work in defines the customer needs you empathize with, the technology and processes you’re familiar with, the partners and suppliers you’ve worked with, the competitors you’ve worried about, and the impacts of macro trends you’ve thought deeply about.[4]

It’s possible to read about these things and appreciate them at an intellectual level. But it’s hard to establish the equivalent of experiential knowledge and even harder to have others appreciate your understanding.[2] The funny thing about getting things done is that many challenges are deeply human. Your customers, team, partners, suppliers, and competitors are all people and it’s hard to really understand them without experiential knowledge.

Evidence

To validate that these are the two defining choices, we can look at how the 4 largest executive search firms organize their practices when recruiting leaders for companies: Korn Ferry, Heidrick Struggles, Russell Reynolds, and Spencer Stuart. Sure enough, they are each organized by function and industry.

In later pieces, I’ll dig into each of the options for function and industry and provide concrete examples about pursuing jobs or projects consistent with them.

What do you think? Are these the right two defining choices? Do you know where you fit in. Sound off in the comments.

Notes

[1] The exception here may be technical research.

[2] Particularly true for people who haven’t worked with you directly.

[3] This is sometimes called a T-shaped skill set and it is likely to be a defining feature of 21st century work. There are exceptions, e.g. if you’re founding a startup, leading a business unit or company, already have an amazing network around what you want to do next, or are independently wealthy. In these cases, a T-shape skill set is still valuable but it can be helpful to pitch breadth as your asset.

[4] The word industry gets tossed around in lots of different ways, some of which aren’t relevant to professional futures. For example, the “cleantech industry” is not really one industry but several disparate ones that are grouped together for a specific purpose.

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5 comments

  1. Praveen Ghanta

    Or you can opt-out! A classmate at MIT once asked a question of some us at lunch: “Would you be a janitor if they paid you 250k to do it?” I was probably the fastest yes. Why? As far back as college, I looked at my future career as nothing more than a numbers game. What was the number? How much did I need to be financially independent – that was the number. I didn’t know exactly what I was interested in – so I decided to focus my career on financial independence first, and from there, anything would be possible.

    I’ve no idea still whether this was the right path or not – but I like to throw it out there as an alternative so that folks know it exists. As readers of this blog are likely high achieving types – I’d say to them: It’s quite possible to get to financial independence within a decade of graduation, if you focus on that goal. It requires mastering personal finance and investing, and maximizing your career cash flow along the way. But it’s doable. By no means is it the right choice for all, but I’d throw it out as an alternative to the assumption that we all have to think of our careers as 30 or 40 years arcs.

  2. Leo

    Hey Vivek – Thanks for the post. I imagine choosing a functional role is a clear decision for some, but others may be stymied by interests in multiple areas. Is it possible to be a “cross-functional” kind of person over the course of a career? I think I am interested in both marketing and operations, but I don’t have enough experience to confidently commit to one over the other. Do you have any advice for people struggling with this decision?

    Most helpful might be tips on thinking about one’s strengths and interests. You once mentioned that it can be useful to ask oneself, “What kind of advice do my friends seek from me? Do I live in ‘the world of people’ or ‘the world of things?'” These questions are not intuitive to me, and they have been very helpful in thinking about fundamental reasons to pick one functional group over another (if necessary). I’d love to hear more in this vein.

    • Vivek

      Leo,
      This is a great question. I’ve been thinking about doing a series on making the “differential diagnosis” amongst functional roles. The questions I had posed earlier about what advice people seek from you and people vs things were both abbreviated versions. You’ve convinced me that this should come sooner rather than later.

      The short answer to your question is that over your career, most specific jobs in most companies will be around owning a set of outcomes or contributions in one function. There are exceptions but that is the general rule. Fortunately, we’ve grouped the functions into 4 sufficiently distinct groups that a few more conversations with people in those roles and almost certainly a next project or job will provide enough evidence to distinguish between 2 of them.

      Now over the course of your career, unique circumstances will likely arise when you end up owning other outcomes, either temporarily or in addition to your core area. For example, this situation comes up in the earliest stage startups and in senior management roles.

      There are also certain jobs that straddle two functional groups, but even they are usually on one side or the other. For example, in the software industry, product marketing and product management straddle marketing and technology / product. The former is generally on the marketing side of the divide and the latter on the technology / product side, but the description of these varies by industry segment and even company (see Product Management vs Product Marketing by Marty Cagan for example). In this context, its important to understand what precise job a company has in mind and how that relates to the core area of contribution that you’re building your career on.

  3. Pingback: Some majors are valuable, most are just interesting | Vivek Mohta
  4. Pingback: For most people, an advanced degree doesn’t make sense | Vivek Mohta

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