Friday, November 18, 2011

Connecting the Dots - My Most Recent Career Conversation

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards" - Steve Jobs

These last couple of months I have had numerous discussions about my career goal with my manager and the head of my department. As in many other career discussions I had in the past, they ask that big question: "where do you see yourself 10 years from now ?". To be perfectly honest, I don't know what exactly I want to do 10 years from now, so I threw out a 'generic' answer like "I want to be in general management". I figured "general management" sounds cool enough, lofty enough, aspirational enough to keep my name on the list of future leaders but also vague enough to give me enough room to explore many different career options.

At my most recent career discussions, this "general management" answer causes me more problems than I ever thought possible. Apparently, I was recently identified as a "high potential" employee and my management think that I can definitely achieve my aspirational career goal that I threw at them somewhat haphazardly a few months back. Now, out of a sudden, this goal is no longer just an aspiration (at least, in my management's mind) and I was being "extremely encouraged" (read: "pushed") to strongly pursue it. They gave me a 'formula' consisting of a mixture of jobs that I should do and when to do each of them. They also told me that this is the best and fastest way to become that cool general manager that I wanted (although honestly, I was not 100% sure that I really wanted that job and for those of you who wonder why, see my earlier post). Furthermore, they condemned that any other career pathway I chose won't lead me there and that I would be making a mistake if I choose that route. The only drawback is that this 'formula' does not come with a money-back guarantee if things don't work out the way they were supposed to :)

It just happened that the job that I want to do (let's call this job A) is not on their list of jobs that can take me to my career goal and the job that they recommended (job B) as my next step is something that I do not want to do. So there I was, perplexed and torn between doing what I am passionate about today and achieving my long-term goal (which I'm still not sure what it is) and pleasing my management at the same time. I know in my heart of heart that I will be really happy if I can do job A since I have been doing similar thing in the past year or so and I truly enjoy it. I have done job B in my pre-B-school time and I didn't enjoy it as much as I did job A.

I'm a firm believer that the future is not ours to see, but being an analytical person, I looked at my own career path to date and talked to many different people to figure out if anyone has proven my management's "planning your future formula". When I looked at different jobs I did in the past, I could not find any single one where I really planned way ahead of time. I took my first job without knowing what my second job will be, same thing with my third and fourth jobs. Ten years ago I would not even dream that I will be sitting here in my own place in Pennsylvania, working at the headquarter of one of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies in the world. If you asked me that "where do you see yourself in 10 years" question, my answer will not even be close to where I am today.

I asked people around me, including my co-worker, what approach they used in their career and how they planned their career moves. Everyone has different career approach, but they all have one thing in common: most of their career moves have been 'opportunistic' than 'planned'. Together these make me further question the validity and effectiveness of my management's formula.

Armed with this data, I tried to make the case of pursuing near-term passion over long-term aspiration to my management. This did not sit too well with them and resulting in them questioning if I really want to achieve my career aspiration and thinking that I don't know what I want to do, which is obviously not a very good thing in the corporate world. I was surprised by their reaction (which I probably should have known it coming), but I feel really passionate about what I currently do so I decided to stay true to myself and to what I belief in and keep 'fighting'.

The battle is still ongoing as I write this blog, but Steve Jobs' words above ring very true to me: "you can't connect the dots looking forward".

Monday, November 7, 2011

Work-Life Balance - Does It Exist ?

A lot of us raised this question when we look for a job opportunity at a company and a lot of companies "advertise" about their wonderful work-life balance as a 'selling point' to candidates. During company presentation or informational interview, we hear "testimonials" from current employees at that particular company who said that they are VPs or senior leaders of some kind yet they still have time to take vacation, take their kids to school, take care of their sick relatives - basically do whatever "normal" people do while still hold those high-paying jobs and perform well. Seduced by these convincing messages and lured by the lucrative compensation they could get at that level, we then sign the job offer and embark on our career journey in the hope to get the best of both worlds: executive level job with top dollars and happy, fulfilled personal life.

Several years into our career we started to realize that things are not as easy and as rosy as we thought. We spend the typical-corporate-America-60-hour-per-week  on the jobs and we see that our managers spend 70 hours per week and our manager's manager spend even more. We see that the senior leaders/VPs are always at the office bright and early at 7 am every morning and no one knows what time they get home since usually they 'disappear' into their meetings during the day and nobody sees them when we leave for home at regular hours. Where is the work-life balance that they were bragging about when they were to recruit us ? Does it exist or is it just some company propaganda designed to lure high-potential, ambitious candidates to bite the bait and join the crowd ?

To me the answer is "yes, it exists" but it really depends on how you go about it. It's not a straightforward answer (nothing ever is, isn't it ? :), so here is my explanation. The key word here is "balance". I think work-life balance will be different for every person. Some people spend 80% of their time working and only 20% enjoying their personal life and still feel that they have work-life balance. Some people choose to limit the number of hours they spend for work in order to give 'more balance' to their work-life balance. Of course there are consequences for any of these choices. Those who choose to spend lots and lots of hours for work will have a better chance in getting to the top and climbing the corporate ladder. Those who don't will have to "settle" for something else. Hence I think work-life balance exists and people make choices on how they want to 'balance' their work and personal life.

Just like in everything else in our life, we make trade-offs in our career and nothing is easy. If you want to be at the top of the company, no matter how big or small the company is, you need to make sacrifices to get there. It is important for some people to be at the top and they are willing to do anything to get there. They enjoy working and being at the top makes them happy. But for some other people, their personal life is more important and they don't want to sacrifice that to be in a higher level of position. For these people, they enjoy spending more time with their family or pursuing their hobbies more than working. Different from the first group of people, doing something for their personal life is what makes them happy and they couldn't care less if that means that they cannot be a VP or if that means that they can "only" be a director of some kind.

So next time you hear a senior leader explains how they can achieve work-life balance, the question you need to ask is how they define 'balance' and dig deeper into their 'pristine' examples on how they manage it. They probably do take vacations, but they still take work-related phone calls during their vacations. They probably do have time to take their kids to school, but they might miss a bunch of their kids' games or plays. They probably do take care of their sick relatives, but they need to check emails often while doing that.

And next time you see those people who have worked for the company for more than 10 years and still be a director, you might want to think again if that career move actually suits you better than being at the top of corporate ladder.

Everything comes at a cost. The choice is yours (and of course mine !).