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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
 The exception here may be technical research.
 Particularly true for people who haven’t worked with you directly.
 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.
 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.