Barefoot CEO: How to build a career

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I’ve given myself 20 mins to write this, so here goes…


Last week I had another person ask me how they could earn more money. My answer was that you generally have to earn it.

A week or two before that I had someone say that they wanted to earn 3x their salary now in the next 18 months. My response to them was unless they were selling drugs, woman, body parts, or the whereabouts of Edward Snowdon, they were unlikely to achieve that in the corporate life they lived in.

Conversely, about a month ago I had one of my team tell me they wanted to earn a salary that was £10k p/y up on where they are now, within the next 3 years. My response to that was that they were underselling themselves, and I think they could earn £15 to £20k more per year if they kept on doing what they were doing (i.e. performing).

In all 3 examples, each person had what I thought was a distorted view of what it takes to build a career that gives them the financial and career opportunities they were looking for.

For myself, I look back and attribute career growth to:
1. doing the work
2. taking on more responsibility (because I displayed enough knowledge of the work to make good decisions)
3. gaining enough trust to be given the next step up
4. rinse and repeat

More often than not, phase 1 was a 1 to 5 year process of learning, and phase 3 was deeply dependant on whether I could convince people that I was capable and responsible enough to take on additional challenges / work / projects etc. In all cases, phase 1 started off with lots of manual, entry level, tedious, work; and the desire to move into phase 3 drove continually pushing the boundaries of what I could accomplish.

To simplify the above, my view is that if you’re sub-30, without dependants like children and a mortgage, and you want to take your career seriously, then you should always, always be under-paid, and over-worked and you should always pick career and personal growth over better pay.

If you unpack that, it means that you should always be growing so fast that you’re being underpaid (i.e.: your growth rate does not equal a yearly inflationary increase), and you should always be working at a capacity over what is expected of you (so you get given more opportunities because your capacity exceeds those around you).

If you do both of the above, you will be given more responsibility, more challenges, you will gain more experience, you will be exposed to more conversations and decisions, and you will eventually be asked to lead. When all of that happens, the financial benefits start to kick in, and then you are limited by what you can produce, the people you can lead, the decisions you make, the trust you engender, the problems you solve, and how fast you can grow to keep up. When all of that happens, most employers in the world will pay you more than you think you are worth today. Why? Because those people are scarce.

Put another way, when I interview and then work with people, I generally boil things down to whether I think I can give that person more responsibility, and then whether they can handle it. So if you ask yourself what you need to do to get more responsibility, and then what kind of person you need to be to handle that additional work / pressure / load etc, then you’re some of the way to figuring out what you need to do to build a career.

Hope that helps anyone sub-30 with no dependants and no mortgage ;-)

3 thoughts on “Barefoot CEO: How to build a career

    • This is harder, because you can’t take the risks that you can when you’re younger, foot loose and fancy free.

      Given the above, this is how I’d approach things:

      My view is that if you’re over-30, with dependants like children and a mortgage, and you want to take your career seriously, then you should generally look for a market salary, and you should be picking career growth over better pay so long as you can afford it. For example, if your household budget requires £50k p/y (am simplifying here), then of course you have to earn that, but that also means you should pick career growth within those parameters rather than more salary.

      The caveat here is that at some point if you can earn more than your household budget, and career growth is no longer the primary driver (maybe your significant other compensates, or your primary driver is family rather than career), then making the choice to take more money is an attractive one.

      Make sense?

  1. This is a classic entrepreneurial view Gareth. This has been my perspective right-up from starting days at Iffort. However, not all people think alike and for many money does matter. Out here in India, it’s a very competitive landscape and attrition rates are high so at some-point other things start setting in.

    However, this vision is perfect for those looking to build a career in small organisations or start-ups. The bigger the organisation is the tougher it is to apply this model.

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