Thursday, April 15, 2010

On Career Decisions

At the time of writing, I am in the middle of an amateur reassessment of all the things I have done in my life so far. In fact, I am forced to do this, I actually did not have a choice. Those who read my blog know that I agnonised over my current job, and that I 'resigned' about 18 months back and agreed to stay on till a sustainable business model could be constructed. This was a difficult 18 months, but at this time, the shape of a different, sustainable, business model has started to emerge. I chose this time to step down, in line with what I promised to myself at the beginning of 2010, and start my life afresh.

This is a time both for profound sadness and relief for me. I hated the job, but loved what I was doing. I saw a purpose in my work - that of changing lives of many people across the world by opening the doors of the world to them. And, I must add, quoting one of our business partners, by transforming lives, in the context of the Philippines, making teachers out of those who would be maids. But a job is more than just the work - it is the social setting and frameworks of expectation within which the work is carried out. In this case, there was a fundamental disalignment of the promise of the work and the context of expectations, which was largely set not by the ground realities of the business we were in, but by the legacy thinking of the organization which sponsored it.

So, deep down, a relief, that I am out of it. I found the cultures ultimately irreconciliable. The disalignment was not just with the greater purpose of the business, but also with the diverse and dynamic nature of the strategy required in this case. This was a great learning experience on some obvious aspects of the business - like the merit of the idea alone can not guarantee its success, or even realization - quite obvious only after the deja vu moment.

In my mind, I am relieved that I shall leave it in a good shape, at least with the promise of an alternate business model and involving people who can take the business forward, sustainably. The experiences of last three years demanded a lot of self-assurance to stay firm on my own objectives, and not give in to used-car salesmanship which was demanded and admittedly, needed. My emotions are mixed on this question: Should I have done what was needed to get the job done? Would everything have sorted itself out once I did what was needed, even if that clashed with my own sense of ethics? After all, it is just my own sense of ethics, rather than anything illegal.

These questions are important because they determine what I do next. I am, of course, doing this change in an unusual way. I have set the date of departure - 30th April - first, and then figuring out what to do. This sure is risky in this economic climate, but the only way I could have done preserving my own self-respect. But this blank slate is also helpful, as it allows me to imagine almost anything: starting fresh with a hands-on job and making a real difference, a corporate position managing significant operations in a professional way this time, an entrepreneurship opportunity which gives me real independence without meddling from anyone, and even a career in journalism, living in permanent poverty but spending my life attempting to change the world.

I am sure most of us face such moments in our lives. Some, like me, face these choices again and again; some others make up their minds early in life and stay the course. I would argue both the approaches work, because life is full of opportunities and we can do whatever we have resolved ourselves to do. However, sometimes, we assume options to be limited than they actually are. I have made that mistake before - the writerly life would not have featured as an option in my thinking usually - and this time around, I want to approach the issue with as open a mind as possible.

Of course, the options are not mutually exclusive. I can still be a part time writer while being a corporate executive during the day, and that may be quite a good way to approach a career transition. It is the usual way of approaching a transition when one is uncertain, but more so because, as one of my friends pointed out, poverty isn't liberating. There can be a debate on this point, indeed: My romantic conception of poor journalist indeed come from Karl Marx's life, who lived a life in squalor but still managed to discover an unique world view. However, one could possibly see that he resented it himself, and his conception of communist era featured a world where people will be free from the compulsions of poverty and will be able to 'pursue their interests'.

I don't mean that poverty is a certain outcome of a writerly life; it may not be. It is not even exclusively connected to a creative career; life of an entrepreneur, unless one is starting from a position of money, can be quite daunting too. Also, this position of money can be quite relative, one can have enough money to start a shop, but neither interests nor skills to own or run such a business; but the same amount of money may not be enough to start a software business. There are, of course, the most trusted sources of angel funding, friends and family, and this leads to the phenomenon of 'you can become who you know'. The rather modern phenomenon of exceptionally wealthy individuals and their investments have also helped many entrepreneurs to jump in, though, as I have come to realize, dumb money, large investments which come without an understanding of the business and purely in pursuit of profit, should be avoided like a plague. Even an exceptional idea can be killed before birth by a disconnected investor, and there are just too many examples at all levels in support of this observation.

On the other hand, corporate careers are a different beast, and they are not for everyone. Most young people I meet obviously want to be managers. My usual advice to them is to think through the decision, because I have been a manager and I have done hands on work, and I have enjoyed the latter far more than the former, and earned as much money. Henry Mintzberg talks about a two dimensional scale of personal traits, setting the Will to Manage and Zest for Business on two sides. Roughly, Will to Manage is about getting into details, handling people and personalities, something which one of my supervisors used to call 'being the agony aunt'; on the other hand, Zest for Business covers the abilities to see the opportunities, will to pursue it and being able to arrange resources or skills to get things done. As any two dimensional scale, the combination of these two factors produce four possible alternate career paths [I present a slightly adapted version below]:

Low Zest for Business, High Will to Manage -> Consider Public or Social Sector

Low Zest for Business, Low Will to Manage -> Do Research, Writing, Pursue Academic or Creative Career

High Zest for Business, Low Will to Manage -> Do deals or Run your own 'boutique' business.

High Zest for Business, High Will to Manage -> Consider a Corporate Career.

The model proved quite useful to me and I know where I belong: I am certainly the High ZoB, Low WoM category. So, I am destined to do well in small businesses, or doing deals; but I shall possibly not do well in running large teams or managing business units which require attention to details.

So, this is what I am going to settle for, ultimately, the career of a small business owner or a consultant, where I want to be very very good at something. I know that will give me a lot of pleasure, enough money and enough 'growth' even if I decide to work for someone. I shall write about this in future, but even growth inside a company may come from more ways than one can imagine; just moving up vertically and taking the chair of one's own manager is not the only way to grow. As Edgar Schein points out in his excellent book on Career Dynamics, one can grow horizontally [by moving into different functions and getting exposure] and also by moving to the centre [being part of the core group, being in the know]. And, obviously, one can do both of this without taking the trouble to take on a complex managerial role, which, if it does not fit the individual expectations out of his career, can in turn limit his potential to succeed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A more precise distinction in discussing entrepreneurship is one of age, rather than size.'' The YES Movie '' produced by Louis Lautman
at www.TheYESmovie.com

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