How to boost your career in a ruthless job market

Sometimes the way to rise to the top is by moving sideways.

NEIL IRWIN: The idea of a tour of duty is a concept that's existed for a long time in the military and the diplomatic world. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, first applied it to the corporate world. And I think it's a really useful concept. The idea is, when you sign up for job, you're not turning up for some indefinite term of service. You're not going to do the same job for 20, 25 years. What you're saying is, "I'm going to do this job and take on this project that might take two years, three years, however long it may be, and after that, we'll re-evaluate." And you're providing a certain commitment to the employer, the employer is providing a certain commitment to you. It's not forever, though.

And it's kind of being honest about the fact that jobs aren't forever. I tend to think of it as what I call the three-year itch, building on the tour of duty concept. First year, you start a new job, you're just trying to learn the ropes, figure out how to do it well. Second year, you're hitting your stride, you're doing well. By the third year, you have to train yourself to have this three-year itch, start to look around and say, how can I explore the next option? It doesn't necessarily mean changing employers. It doesn't even necessarily mean changing jobs. It's saying, "O.K., three, maybe four or five years has passed, I really need to make sure I'm broadening my experience and gaining something other than just doing the same job over and over again." So I think I grew up hearing the term career ladder. And I think it's something we've all heard.

You start in a job, you start as a junior associate or whatever the title is, and you work your way up to associate, to director, to vice president, to whatever your ambitions may be. And that's fine. There's certainly those hierarchies that still exist in most companies. But what I've found is that it's really important to think of it as not just a ladder, but a lattice, so a grid. And it's not just about moving up, it's also about moving sideways, sometimes even moving down slightly. I think the key is cutting across different types of technical specialty and understand how they fit together. It's not just about, if you're a marketing, person becoming the very best marketing person. It's becoming the very best marketing person who also understands the technology, the engineering, the finance, the strategy, how those pieces fit together in a modern organization. If you can't do that, you're not even that good a marketing person.

You're not going to get to that top rung because you haven't made those lateral moves and understood how the pieces fit together. So the best thing about being new into the workforce, new into the corporate world, is that you have a lot of room to grow, and you're not so established that you can't really jump around. And the thing about becoming more senior is those sideways leaps on the career ladder are a lot riskier and a lot more dangerous. If you fall down, it's going to hurt a lot more. When you're at lower levels, it's actually less of a risk to raise your hand and volunteer for some team that's out of your comfort zone in a different department, to embed with a different group, to sign up for a special project that an executive wants done. You can take those team those assignments and those risks without too much risk, if it goes bad, that you're in a terrible spot. So I think it's actually a wonderful place to be.

I think the key is having the courage and the ability to really raise your hand and say, I want those opportunities. Part of working at an organization, it's not just the pay and benefits they pay you, it's also the experiences they give you and how they will set you up for the future. And I think, earlier in your career, you're not making that much money, the difference between a small raise or not is not as big as, are you at a place that is letting you grow, that is letting you expand your horizons and become the person who can ultimately rise to the top of that lattice, not be stuck at lower levels. It's true that employers can get frustrated that people are restless and want to move on and move around, but I think they really have only themselves to blame if you look at what's happened in corporate America in the last generation or so. It used to be that if you started at a big, profitable, successful company, and kept your nose clean, kept your head down, you could work there for an entire career, and be in good shape.

Even if there was a recession or a slump in business, they would really try hard not to do layoffs, not to cut people back. But I think what we see now is a much more ruthless form of capitalism, where if you're not needed anymore, if your skills are no longer what the company needs, if your business unit has a slump, if there's a recession, you will be laid off. And I think when employees and workers are saying, well, I'm not going to have a lifelong commitment to this employer, it's because they know the employer will not have a lifelong commitment to them. And I think this idea of reciprocity is tremendously important in an employment relationship. If your employer is the kind that really takes care of you and gives you lots of leave if you have a kid, and lots of educational benefits if you want to go back to school, things like that, that's one thing.

If they're the kind who are going to cut you loose the minute things are going rough, that's not the kind of place you want to be, or at least not the kind of place you want to have any loyalty to in the opposite direction. I think the first thing that makes a good employee-employer relationship is honesty, a sense that there's a straightforward understanding of, this is what this company does, this is our vision, this is what we're trying to do, this is how you as the employee fit in it. And I think what where things can go wrong sometimes is when there's this kind of misplaced sense of, we're a family, we're with each other forever. That's really not how it is. A career is not like a marriage, it's like a series of hookups. And I think if you have misplaced expectations on either side-- on either the employer or the employee side-- that's where a lot of friction and unhappiness can really result.

You know, I titled this book "How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World," not how to make the most money in a winner-take-all world, not how to become a CEO. And the reason is, there are a lot of different forms of winning, a lot of different forms of success. And I'm not going to sit here and tell you exactly which should be that form for you. Maybe it is becoming a CEO or a top executive. Maybe it is making millions and millions of dollars. But maybe it's something else. Maybe it's finding a career that's challenging, and rewarding, and satisfying, but allows you enough time to spend time with your family and really have a rich home life. Maybe you have hobbies or side interests that you want to be able to pursue. And there's nothing wrong with any of those.

I think the key is being thoughtful about what your real purpose is, and what your real drive is, and making sure that the career choices you make -- the kinds of organizations you work for, the kinds of skills you cultivate -- are aligned with that broader set of interests, and not just letting it happen by accident because, oh, well, you know, "I'm supposed to want to get a promotion and make more money, so that's what I have to do." Be thoughtful about it.

  • Modern jobs come with a tour of duty expectation — that is, you provide a certain commitment to the employer, and the employer provides a certain commitment to you, but it's not forever. After a few years, results and options are re-evaluated.
  • Rather than thinking of a career ladder, it's more important in the modern job market to view it as a career lattice — a grid. It's not always about moving up, sometimes it's about moving sideways or even down slightly. Why? That way you can cut across different specialties and see how they fit together.
  • One of the most important aspects about working at a company isn't just the money you are paid — it's about the experiences they give you and how they set you up for the future. On top of getting a raise, you should be mindful how an employer is trying to help you expand your horizons so that you can rise to the top of the lattice.

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