Careers are unpredictable—but successful careers are very rewarding, in a variety of ways. And while achieving success, regrettably, is not an algebraic formula (or at least, I’m unable to construct the formula), you can acknowledge and influence the variables that impact your success.
In the course of my career, I’ve worked at and recruited for an up-or-out consulting firm (Accenture), a massive technology corporation (Google), and an elusive unicorn (InsideSales), before finally taking the plunge and moving to a small startup (ZipBooks). I’ve quickly realized that while being at a small company certainly has its own set of risks, the balance of those risks have shifted from being primarily outside my control to inside my control.
With this perspective, my first piece of advice to MBA students and recent grads is this: before ruling out working at a small company, consider the uncontrollable factors in your success. Even if you are (justifiably) obsessed with measuring and accounting for every risk you can, there are still several which you’ll be blind to before starting a job at a large company—and which are out of your control. Let’s explore some of those.
Your boss. Your boss may be the single most important factor in the slope of your career trajectory. You can build a successful relationship with your boss. But, your own boss’s actions and abilities are out of your control. If you deserve an early promotion, you need a boss who will fight for you and has influence with other leaders. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many promotion decisions where managers’ ability to champion candidates is more important than candidates’ performance.
Your team. I’ve been through two acquisitions – once as an employee and once as a consultant. Tragically, both times, acquired employees’ future roles and employment were determined by their team. My dream is a perfect employment meritocracy; unfortunately, acquiring companies do not fully consider individual potential or merit. If the team is redundant, employees are let go. If the team works on goals strategic to or needed by the acquirer (software engineers, you are safe), employees are kept and frequently promoted.
But this path to promotion doesn’t just happen via acquisition. When I was at Google, resources were flying to moonshot ideas. On a moonshot team? Grow as fast as you can find people. But headcount rapidly moved both ways. Thanks to a growing Google Street View team, I can spend hours exploring iconic and imaginary places. Yet, I wasn’t mourning alone when Google Reader got the axe. Google had a common, unwritten rule that no more than 20% of employees are promoted in a given year. So, the average employee is promoted once every five years. But here’s the catch: unless your team grows quickly. Mathematically, a beating pulse and relative tenure ensure quick promotions on these rocket-ship teams. Teams that implode, however, are left with an ugly promotion bottleneck.
Your company. Your boss impacts the slope of your success; your team introduces volatile pits or prosperity; your company creates your ceiling. If a company is profitable, your success (via compensation) profits. If a company grows, well, each employee grows with it. At Insidesales, we attracted employees who wanted a career halo from going through an IPO. This logic seems sound, but at that stage, one employee’s impact on that goal was marginal at best.
When candidates identify and discuss career risks, the cringe-worthy, punch-in-my-gut fallacy I continuously hear is that these risks should be ignored, because they are uncontrollable. Yes, they are uncontrollable—after you accept the job. Rick Ruback, an exceptional (and very candid) HBS professor, spoke with me after one lecture and highlighted this point: MBA students overestimate the risk of building a successful small company and underestimate the risk of getting stuck in middle management. I couldn’t agree more.
Look, I understand that large companies have a lot of perks. Networks, mentors, defined career paths—the list goes on. I’m sure my business school applications benefited from my employers’ brands. But for MBA candidates, tried and true paths to admissions are shrinking. A job at Google or Goldman Sachs tells admissions, “Look, I was successful at interviewing!” Well, I’d prefer to show that I was simply successful.
I now interview candidates at ZipBooks, a venture-backed accounting software startup. ZipBooks is growing, but it’s still small. Because of its size, each employee has an outsized impact on the success of the company. Our career success is connected to the company’s success; we prefer powering the oars and steering the wheel to letting others row and direct.
Business school students likely invented the most common algebraic rubric of all time – weighing “pros and cons.” So do it! Make your list. Draw your decision tree. Dissect the business model. Evaluate the leadership team. But consider avoiding a few uncontrollable career risks. Put success in your own hands. Find a place where you have an outsized impact and determine the slope, volatility, and peak of your career.
Jaren Nichols is a Harvard MBA who believes that by going to small companies MBA grads can have an over-sized impact on the results and success of a company and, subsequently, their careers. After a four-year consulting gig with Accenture in San Francisco, Nichols spent two years at Google where he launched a first generation Incentive Compensation Management product to design before working in several startups–Nest, InsideSales.com and now ZipBooks, where he is in charge of revenue.