All posts by Cindy

The Single Greatest Challenge With Today’s Career

No matter how well you prepare yourself for your career, there’s a rising force that is creating huge barriers for professionals today.  College degrees don’t matter.  It can’t prepare you for this.  Even a great network of professionals and coworkers and years of experience has limited impact in this landscape.  This force creates an environment like no other in the history of business.  For those in power, it provides the ultimate in flexibility in use of talent but for the talent, it affords some serious confusion in determining, much less traversing, any kind of career path.

Just a few decades ago, my father worked in a 100 year old company for over 34 years.  The company had a well defined structure, including a management hierarchy, job roles, payment structures, career paths and incentive plans.  I became a part of the company as I grew up.  Strangely, when I graduated college and starting working there, I couldn’t see the company I knew as a kid.  Changes had already begun and continued every year I worked there.  It was the beginning of what we call the “constant change” that we see today.

A softening structure.  When I began my first job, the organizational structure was rigid and well-defined.  Everyone had their place and knew what their responsibilities were every day.  I had a manager to help me when I ran into problems.  The organization chart was clear to each employee in many ways.  Now, let’s look at the difference within the last ten years.  I’ve helped many professionals who work in companies that have no organizational chart.  Companies engage in these practices because they say they want to remove barriers and allow their employees to approach anyone at anytime.  Having studied a few companies that have utilized this method, I can’t say that is highly successful, as many have failed.  While it seems like a good approach, employees quickly learn that there is still a hierarchy.  The management structure is well defined, just not put on an organization chart.  Decisions are still made by this structure and when things go wrong, it rolls downhill.  While some superficial facets change, many things don’t.  It’s not all bad though.  Employees do have the ability to interact with other business leaders, which can lead to new opportunities. Remember, there’s no structure so there is no real career path either.  You have to figure that out for yourself.

It’s hard to roll with my role.  Now, more than ever, high achievers are engaging with organizations that want to hire them but don’t want to provide a clear definition of their responsibilities.  Companies feel a strong need to remain flexible, which means they need to be able to use their talent any way they see necessary.  Role definitions tie their hands and contribute to an inability to change directions quickly.  Of course, it’s also possible that companies don’t know exactly what they need so they hire people who can function in ambiguity and aren’t afraid to charge headfirst into the unknown.  When I was a kid, I often worked as a farm hand.  This is a job that requires you to do whatever the landowner asks you to do.  They didn’t ask if you had certain skills or talents.  They needed something done and I was the person to do it.  Today, we see that even with the best business knowledge and expertise in the world, work boils down to that same simple principle.  Somebody has to do it.

There’s no work schedule.  This is certainly a more recent trend for companies that has been ushered in by technology that helps us work from anywhere at any time.   The typical work week was defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which was established to ban oppressive child labor, set the minimum wage standard and the maximum work week. Of course, with most employment, this doesn’t apply to you.  High achievers are often salaried exempt employees, which mean your work schedule isn’t really protected by law, as long as your pay is the same each pay period.  You can work 40 hours a week or 100 hours a week.  To make this more challenging for you, there is no real definition of work hours.  With a cell phone and laptop, you are reachable any time of the day and reachable almost anywhere in the world.  Growing up as a kid, my dad had a pretty good schedule.  He was an hourly employee and worked from 6AM to 3PM.  He could easily plan his life because the schedule was well defined.  Today’s work schedule is ill defined and makes your life a little more unpredictable.

Working ‘at-will.’  As if your career wasn’t already lacking of any real structure, states have created laws that allow employers to dismiss you for any reason and without warning.  Yep, that means they can walk into your office on Friday and terminate your employment without any justification.  Friday is a good day because it doesn’t disrupt the normal workday of your coworkers should you be terminated without reason.  So, the length of your employment at any company is always at risk.  Many years ago, this wasn’t much of a risk for the workforce but now many managers have figured out that balancing the bottom can include terminating a few employees to keep their division’s budget in the black.  I know we are all professionals here but when your job is on the line, you might be forced to do things you wouldn’t normally do, like terminating employees.

All of these factors have created a completely amorphous environment, void of any reasonable predictability, which further perpetuates the need for change.  We can’t see where we are going and that makes us uneasy.  Professionals remain in a job for 2 or 3 years but choose to leave because their future in the organization continues to remain undefined.  We are creatures of habit and embrace predictability, to some extent.  We’ve built our lives around our jobs and when that stability becomes unstable, so do our thoughts on satisfaction and happiness.  We once had a system that built careers on a visible, logical progression.  You went to college to earn a degree and then entered the workforce in your field.  After years of work in that field, you were promoted up the chain in a career that lasted a lifetime.  Bonuses and promotions were an annual part of your growth.  Today, we see more job uncertainty than we ever have but it appears to be occurring in times with sufficient economic stability. Nonetheless, young graduates will find themselves entering a workforce that struggles to define what it can offer in return for their efforts.   Whatever it is, it is likely to be short term.

I’ve Got An MBA – Where Are the Management Jobs?

You’ve finally earned your ticket (the MBA) to the executive ranks. Graduation is over, you have a diploma and now you need to figure out how and, most importantly, where to put your skills to work.  The job market for managers is fairly hot right now.  If you haven’t found your opportunity yet, here are some places you might not have thought to look.

New business.  Many companies tout their successes to the world, mostly in the hopes of winning favor with potential customers but you can use these press releases to identify potential employers.  Small to medium companies often win big contracts from the private sector and government sector for which they are not totally prepared to manage.  While they may have established some preliminary management strategy to win the business, they may get changes to what they were awarded that is outside of their proposed plan.  Change always creates opportunity for establishing vision and direction.

Your action:  Monitor websites in your industry to identify companies that have announced big wins.  Learn as much as you can about their new business and determine where you can help out.  Then, contact someone in their Business Development department to see if you can get connected with the person responsible for that new business (e.g. department manager).  You go to Business Development people because they like to talk and negotiate.  Pitch your knowledge, skills and abilities in a way that clearly articulates how you can help them manage that new business.

Mergers & Acquisitions.  Companies are always trying to find ways to make money.  One of these ways is through the acquisition of other companies.  Big companies buy smaller companies to expand into new markets, increase their intellectual property or simply to show growth to investors.  Usually these transitions are challenging and difficult to manage as larger companies are not adept at adapting small companies into their fold.  Often, they will select new management for the smaller companies to help them make the transition, and this is where you can help.  A word of caution: Most of these acquisitions only last a few years before they are spun off or shut down.  If you’re not afraid of change, this is the type of business to follow.  M&A is always happening.  Read about 2015 M&A activity here.

Your action: M&A activity is not a highly publicized activity, at least not until the deal has been made.  The best way to learn about these activities is to tap into the industry grapevine and listen for rumors.  Talk with Business Development people to learn about rumors of mergers and acquisitions in your industry.  Go to trade shows and industry association meetings and conferences to gather information.  Companies love to talk about these rumors, which often have a strong element of truth.  Get your information and strategy ready for how you can make that acquisition more successful. Then, maintain contact with your connections to identify when it will occur.  Send your resume and cover letter that explains how you are the solution to the success of the new acquisition.

Venture capitalists (VC).  Another great source of management changeover is companies owned by venture capitalists.  Typically, VCs provide funding to companies and try to grow the companies as quickly as possible in an effort to sell them in a few years for a large profit.  This process of buying and selling companies creates a need for exceptional leaders who can manage each transition.  Often, VCs will identify organizational leaders they like and will seek to work with them many times during their career.  But there are also opportunities to introduce yourself and how you can help make them more successful.

Your action: Search the web for venture capitalists in your industry.  It’s as easy as doing a Google search on the name of your industry and the words “venture capitalists.”  Click the links to identify numerous VCs in your industry.  Then, research them to find out what companies they invest in.  Create your business case for why they should hire you and send it to the VCs and the companies they own. But make sure you know which of their companies may be in line for a transition before you engage with them.

Having an MBA is great.  You do learn about business.  Unfortunately, business isn’t run anything like it was when the MBA was first created.  Constant change is the flavor of the day.  Managing in transition isn’t the same as steady state management.  My guess is that there are far more companies in transition than there are in steady state.  If you can create a compelling case for why you’re the best for transition management, then you’ll likely find an opportunity to prove it.

MBA for Starting Your Business

It’s the latest craze and it almost sounds like a contradiction but many universities in the USA have quickly adopted an MBA program focused on entrepreneurship.  If the university isn’t adopting a certified program, they’ve instituted seminars, weekend training, networking events and more that address entrepreneurial needs.   It’s hard to imagine that academia would be able to show budding new entrepreneurs how to run a successful business.  The MBA degree was developed to help managers become better managers. Now, we are taking into a position that requires a broader set of knowledge, skills and abilities.  Many universities realize the challenge in providing such education so they often solicit the support from local entrepreneurs.  In fact, many colleges hire entrepreneurs to develop the new MBA program.  While the MBA isn’t really a requirement for anything, an MBA entrepreneurial program isn’t either but it might be helpful for your startup.  In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the key elements of this type of program so that you can determine if it’s right for you.

Assessing business ideas.  If you want to be an entrepreneur but don’t have any idea what business you want to create, then learning to assess ideas is very important.  The ability to recognize and evaluate opportunities is not an easy task.  Most entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship educators recognize that only a small percentage of venture ideas actually represent viable business opportunities.  Such skills are critical as startups are usually plagued by high uncertainty, low information and the need for rapid decision-making.  Students are often introduced to numerous platforms for evaluating business ideas such as the Timmons Model of the Entrepreneurial Process, the New Venture Decision Making Model and the Opportunity Search Model.  These models help you assess potential opportunities by guiding your focus in areas of environmental attributes, owner characteristics, strategy factors, resources, economics, and product/service model.

Basic organizational structures.  Most programs offer guidance in identifying the various types of structure that might be suitable for your business, such as an LLC, C-corp, S-corp and so on.  The factors that are important here are usually the number of owners, tax benefits, liabilities, and record keeping requirements.  If you don’t know anything about these, then the knowledge you get will be helpful.  However, in my experience, spending a few minutes with a business attorney or CPA is just as sufficient.

Develop a sound Business Plan.  If you’ve been reading our blog, this should be easy.  We just saved you a ton of money.  MBA entrepreneurial programs will give you great support in building a good business plan.  The business plan serves two purposes:  (1) clarifies your value statement and revenue model, and (2) communicates sufficient growth potential and stability for investors.  Of course, the quality of plan is only as good as the experience behind the creator, so you might want to investigate the experience of your professor.   Ideally, you can create your business plan early in the program and implement it throughout the life of your MBA program.

Marketing Plans.  MBA programs concentrate more on analytical and strategic marketing, such as creating marketing plans and strategies for sales purposes.  There is potential to develop some powerful skills here, such as competitor analysis, market research, budgeting, branding, communication, marketing tactics and metrics for monitoring.  Marketing plans are very valuable for a startup as they will help you focus your energy.  If you don’t develop the skills yourself, you’ll likely be hiring them at some point. 

Funding.  Many programs offer courses on working with venture capital firms, banks and angel investors.  These sources are exciting as they often come with sophisticated investment analysis tools and models, as well as thoroughly researched and professionally prepared business plans.  The top tier programs also give you access to these fund providers.  Unfortunately, most startups don’t usually get to tap into such sources.  The more common sources of funds for new and smaller businesses are family, friends, informal investors and the entrepreneur themselves.  Much of what you’ll learn won’t be used right away but will be helpful later on.

Mock experience.  Most programs will tell you this is a huge advantage, as students are afforded the practice of key business skills in a safe environment.  You can basically work with a team of students to walk through the development and implementation of a business venture.  The intent of this mock experience is to help ensure decisions are made using sound business practices.  The hope is that you’ll fall back on your habits, developed during practice, when difficult situations arise.  Of course, you may have the view that there are many factors that can affect your decision making abilities that can be emulated in a classroom setting.  It reminds me of the scene in the movie Harry Potter:  The Order of the Phoenix when Harry asks Professor Dolores Umbridge “And how is theory supposed to prepare us for what’s out there?”  In this scene, the ministry felt that a “theoretical knowledge will be sufficient to get you through your examinations.”  Unfortunately, starting your own company has real consequences that can be quite costly and theory ignores the fact that real businesses often deal with irrational people, both in your own team and the customer.

Identify new ventures.  To sustain growth of your organization, you must be able to identify new opportunities, including understanding, qualifying and quantifying the market.  Additionally, you must also understand your competitive advantage, build a financial plan, secure funding and build a team that can implement the plan.  These lessons may seem a little premature when you’re just starting up as you’ll be more focused on implementing your business plan, which usually doesn’t include changing course or expanding products and services right away.  If you don’t know what kind of company you want to start, this may help you understand how to assess any opportunities you find interesting.

Global strategies.  Most offerings are designed to help you develop leadership and strategic thinking tuned to the realities of today’s global economy, including topics related to operations, partnerships, product development, and legal contracts.  If you don’t plan on going abroad anytime soon, this may be a little premature and not a great deal of help for your more urgent startup needs.

Networking with other entrepreneurial minds.  Networking is a common theme for MBA programs.  Apparently it works for entrepreneurial programs as many students partner with other classmates to launch their business.  Networking is always helpful as it lets you bounce your ideas off existing entrepreneurs, professors and students who can help you evaluate your ideas.   Now, this can be done in many places, not just a college campus.

Startup acceleration.  This offering is usually dedicated to helping fundable startups with scalable business models connect with companies who might be interested in supporting the business idea through mentorship and venture capital.  If you’ve got an idea that requires considerable startup funding, this might be a useful approach.

While I’ve always thought that universities have become quite adept at jumping onto new trends, entrepreneurship seems to be more popular than the MBA itself.  The concern I would have in partaking in such programs is that you will be spending a lot of money to learn skills that may not be easily transferable to other companies should you decide not to start your own upon graduation.  Even worse, you could graduate from the program and your startup company fails a short time after.  That would be a huge setback.  Now, this is not to say that such programs don’t have value.  They do have value, especially if you have an idea of the business you want to start.  I’m not sure you’ll gain great benefit in these programs if you have no idea what business you want to create.  Just think about the challenge of any MBA graduate who finds themselves at the end of the program asking themselves “now what?”

In our next, we’ll give you a list of questions you should consider before enrolling in such programs.  We’ll also try to bring you real experiences from graduates to assess how well the programs work.

THE MBA: USE IT WITH CAUTION

Many professionals engage in this often expensive endeavor to gain business knowledge and skills that will hopefully improve their career mobility, either immediately or in the future.  Once the MBA is obtained, these freshly minted MBAs rush into the world to demonstrate their new found expertise.  The hope is that a clear demonstration of great knowledge will bring forth praise, reward and opportunity.  Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when utilizing your new skills and knowledge in your work place.

I now know what they know.  One common misconception new MBAs adopt is that the knowledge they gain in the MBA program is known by most managers and leaders in organizations.  With the MBA, they can now engage in the discussions with leadership or at least understand what they are talking about.  In most small and medium enterprises, you’ll find that many leaders are not highly educated.  They don’t develop strategies and plans for their organizations using methods taught in MBA programs.  These leaders use their experience and connections within their industries to figure out the direction of the company.  You should never assume what you know is what they know.  The importance of this fact will be shown later on in the article.

My new research abilities will be helpful.  It seems logical that being able to perform research to understand how the market trends, creating a thorough competitor analysis, or developing a roadmap for technology creation would be useful or desired by management.  It is important, especially if it is your job and leadership has requested this information.  If not, many managers and leaders may not understand the methods or the results.  The whole process of the research and developing these helpful results may likely be misinterpreted.

The MBA doesn’t make you a leader.  The MBA has become a science, not a journey into managing people.  No one believes it automatically makes you a leader.  Your individual personality has far more to do with you getting a leadership role than possessing an MBA.  In the book, The Ten Golden Rules Of Leadership, Soupios and Mourdoukoutas posit that leadership requires an unusual composite of skill, experience, and seasoned personal perspective, which include your personal values, priorities, and an ability to build and sustain a respectable quality of life.  I know you’ll want to lean very heavily on the scientific methods you’ve learned to improve business but the soft side will get you where you want to go much faster.

Your new knowledge doesn’t incorporate an understanding of management psychology.  The MBA teaches you about leadership, usually from an ideal perspective.  However, most companies operate far from ideal.  The way many managers and leaders function are known well to psychologists but not to the rest of us, as we believe they operate on a higher standard.  I wish it were always true but it isn’t.  They are just like the rest of us.  Learning these lessons in the workplace can be detrimental to your job, reputation and upward mobility.  Here are some key takeaways from some MBAs with such experiences in the workplace.

  • No acknowledgement. “My manager never even recognized the fact that I graduated with my MBA.  He viewed my MBA as personal development.  He didn’t think it was needed for my job, yet they still paid for my tuition.”
  • They just don’t understand. “After our company was acquired, I created a 20 factor cultural analysis to show our leadership how different the two companies were and how we needed to change to make it work.  I wanted the merger to be successful and I wanted to ensure I had a job for the future.  My boss said that I hated the company and shared my analysis with the General Manager, who I found out later used part of the analysis in his report to the leadership of our new parent company.  Two years later, we had lost so much money, we were sold off again.”
  • I’ll take that. “We needed to create some new technology to grow our business.   My boss asked me to figure out how much we should be charging for the IP we would create.  I did the research and came up with several methods.  He told his boss that he developed a method that was actually 10x the cost of what I had proposed.  We never sold anything.”
  • I’m the boss. “After I graduated with my MBA, a management position opened up. My COO tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to interview for the position.  I thought this was a good sign that I would get the job.  I didn’t even know a position was open.  I found out that there was one other applicant and he didn’t have an MBA.  Unfortunately, the other guy got the job.  The COO didn’t have an advanced degree either.  He was sending a clear message.”

There are too many stories like this to share in a single post.  The important thing to remember is that managers are people.  In most small to medium enterprises, these managers are not highly educated.  They have been put in power due to circumstances that probably weren’t dependent upon their use of a high degree of intellect but they do feel a strong urge to lead, even if they don’t know how.  They also don’t want to look bad in front of their boss, as they worry it might cost them their job.  Today, managers worry about that more than anything else.    While you’ll want to show off what you know, it does come with consequences.  If you’re in an organization that appreciates what you have to offer, the consequences will be good.  If they don’t need it or want it, you may find that the consequences hamper your upward mobility and you’ll encounter experiences like these that will clearly articulate what management thinks of your MBA.