He put his hand on my sheet and he looked at me and said, “Don’t be an idiot”. Excellent career advice. And then he said, “Get on a rocket ship. When companies are growing quickly and you are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in. If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on”.
About 6 and half years later, when I was leaving Google, I took that advice to heart. I was offered CEO jobs at a bunch of companies, but I went to Facebook as COO. At the time people said, why are you going to work for a 23 year old? The traditional metaphor for careers is a ladder, but I no longer think that metaphor holds. It doesn’t make sense in a less hierarchical world.
When I was first at Facebook, a woman named Lori Goler, a 1997 graduate of HBS, was working in marketing at eBay and I knew her kind of socially. And she called me and she said, “I want to think about – talk to you about coming to work with you at Facebook. So I thought about calling you, and telling you all the things I’m good at and all the things I like to do. But I figured that everyone is doing that. So instead I want to know what’s your biggest problem and how can I solve it”.
My jaw hit the floor. I’d hired thousands of people up to that point in my career, but no one had ever said anything like that. And I had never said anything like that. Job searches are always about the job searcher, but not in Lori’s case. I said, “You’re hired. My biggest problem is recruiting and you can solve it”.
So Lori changed fields into something she never thought she’d do, went down a level to start in a new field and has since been promoted and runs all of the people operations at Facebook and she is doing an extraordinary job, having amazing impact. Lori has a great metaphor for careers. She says, “They’re not a ladder; they’re a jungle gym”.
As you start your post-HBS career, look for opportunities, look for growth, look for impact, look for mission. Move sideways, move down, move on, move off. Build your skills, not your resume. Evaluate what you can do, not the title they’re going to give you. Do real work. Take a sales quota, a line role, an ops job, don’t plan too much, and don’t expect a direct climb. If I had mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed my career.
You are entering a different business world than I entered. Mine was just starting to get connected. Yours is hyperconnected. Mine was competitive. Yours is way more competitive. Mine moved quickly, yours moves even more quickly. As traditional structures are breaking down, leadership has to evolve as well — from hierarchy to shared responsibility, from command and control to listening and guiding.
You’ve been trained by this great institution, not just to be part of these trends but to lead. As you lead in this new world, you will not be able to rely on who you are or the degree you hold. You’ll have to rely on what you know. Your strength will not come from your place on some org chart, your strength will come from building trust and earning respect. You’re going to need talent, skill, and imagination and vision, but more than anything else, you’re going to need the ability to communicate authentically, to speak so that you inspire the people around you and to listen so that you continue to learn each and every day on the job.
If you watch young children, you’ll immediately notice how honest they are. My friend Betsy in my section a few years after business school was pregnant with her second child and her first child, Sam, was about 5 and said he look at her, and said, “Mommy, where is the baby”.
And she said, “Well, the baby is in my tummy”.
And he said, “Really, aren’t the baby’s arms in your arms?”
And she said, “No, the baby’s in my tummy”.
“Really? Are the baby’s legs in your legs?”
“No, the whole baby is in my tummy”.
And he said, “Mommy, then what is growing in your butt?”
As adults, we are never this honest, and that is not a bad thing. I have borne two children, the last thing I needed were those comments, which obviously could have been made. But it’s not always a good thing either. Because all of us, and especially leaders, need to speak and hear the truth. The workplace is an especially difficult place for anyone to tell the truth, because no matter how flat we want our organizations to be, all organizations have some form of hierarchy. And what that means is that one person’s performance is assessed by someone else’s perception. This is not a setup for honesty.
Think about how people speak in a typical workforce. Rather than say I disagree with our expansion strategy or better yet, this seems truly stupid. They say, well, I think there are many good reasons why we’re entering this new line of business, and I’m certain the management team has done a thorough ROI analysis, but I’m not sure we fully considered the downstream effects of taking this step forward at this time. As we would say at Facebook around the internet, three letters: WTF.