Category Archives: Organizations

Here you find our thoughts on the modern and emerging challenges of forging a career ladder in organizations beyond the start up in size.

Welcome to a divided job market

Tomorrow’s federal budget is supposed to be long on austerity — and long on spending to improve training. We have a shortage of skilled trades in this country.

Advertising for jobs has fallen in most Canadian markets, and not just because it moved online. Mid-level and up positions seem to have disappeared, for the most part, while what’s showing up on city-wide sweeps using tools like Workopolis are mostly entry-level and low-level positions.

Yet, at the same time, recruiters — the kind that are paid to search for a candidate, not the kind that get paid if and only if their candidate is hired — are seeing business growing sharply. Their phones are ringing with orders.

What’s going on? Is the market doing well even though it’s out of sight?

Our Personal Due Diligence read on this situation is that enterprises are getting ready to house-clean.

The economic forecast isn’t particularly strong. The consumer is still weak. South of the border, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has moved another step further into implementation, and in most states insurance premiums are expected to rise 50 pre cent or more. Whether employer or employee-paid, that’s a massive hit to future spending.

With China slowed, India stalled, Brazil playing with recession, the global economic picture says “slow down on investing in growth”.

It is, however, a good time to invest in the management team — in particular, finding better people than you have now.

That’s why recruiters’ phones are ringing, even though the adverts are quiet. Individuals are willing to take the risk of a job move, so why not upgrade while you can? Of course, since the incumbent hasn’t been axed yet in most cases, the search has to be a quiet one.

Down at the bottom end of things — on the shop floor, in the hospital wards, and the like — life goes on. That’s why those ads can still be seen.

What’s not being said out loud — but needs to be a part of your own personal diligence plan — is that there’s a little reorganization going on as well.

Most enterprises (public or private sector) have unfunded pension liabilities. Early retirement packages, especially in the management ranks, are allowing the diversion of salary funds into top ups.

Trading in two mediocre managers for one top flight one — even if the quality acquisition will cost more — is a good deal right now. So, too, is using the reorganization to strip out a layer (having a new director have managers report directly rather than through senior managers, or a vice-president do without directors).

The organization improves the quality of its people while reducing the total managerial complement, and gets to redirect some monies toward its pension obligations.

Of course, in the future, that means that overall the number of rungs available on the various career ladders is shrinking, not growing, at least in the mid- and large-sized enterprise world.

How secure are you? And if you’re not sure, or don’t feel secure, what are you doing about it?

Getting recognition and mentors in a big enterprise

So, you’re a younger person, working to climb the career ladder, but still buried somewhere in the lower-middle of the organization. How can you get recognition? How can you get a mentor — or mentors — well up the food chain helping you?

One way is to start demonstrating that you’re thinking about the business as a whole.

One of the hardest things for we humans to do is give up the things that got us to where we are. From “Ural is a Great Hunter” (but we’re now farming) in prehistory to IT managers having to stop being technicians and sales managers having to stop carrying a bag in a territory, career progression turns on acquiring and demonstrating new skills — which means your job doesn’t exercise some or all of the ones that got you to the position.

One of the toughest transitions that lies ahead is the one that shifts you from functional management — leading a function in the organization — to general management (leading many functions as an organization). Very few make that jump successfully. (It’s also a key part of the differences between being in an organization of some size and being in a start-up: in a start-up, everyone has to have some of the general management mindset.)

I watched an acquaintance of mine take all the right steps to get recognition and top-level support (mentoring and counsel) and then make one mistake.

He’d gone to work for a new company, having emigrated to Canada in the previous year. In his prior life, he’d been a general manager in a large multinational. He was used to asking and answering questions for himself about “what business are we in”, “where do our inputs come from”, “how do we add value to them”, “who are our customers” and the like.

Upon taking up a mid-level staff role attached to the Office of the Chief Information Officer, he set about understanding the business he’d joined. He analysed their inputs (this was a power distribution utility, and so the inputs were generation facilities) and discovered that the company’s internal generation capability wouldn’t keep up with demand — and in relatively short order (two or three years). They’d then have to buy power in from neighbouring utilities, which would change their cost profile dramatically. Given that they were (as are most utilities) price-regulated, they would have to fight to get the increases needed to maintain profitability.

He drew the conclusion that the company’s current strategy of doing deals with third-party power producers was equally unlikely to generate enough at low enough costs to make a difference. Then he wrote the whole thing up and gave it to his boss.

There was his wrong move. What he ought to have done is sent it to one of the senior vice-presidents, not as “analysis” but with a question attached: “I did this to understand our business since I’m new, but I must be making mistakes here. Can you help me understand what I don’t know about this?”

You see, not only was his immediate superior (the CIO) the wrong person to look at power generation questions — for the CIO, the only question this raised was “what the devil am I paying you to do, play business school? Get to work!” — but even if he had made a breakthrough insight it wasn’t in the hands of anyone who could do anything with the information.

On the other hand, demonstrating that you’ve taken the time to understand the company but have a serious question both alerts higher ups that you’re thinking like a general manager, and hands them the analysis without making any claims at all about it. “I must be making mistakes” takes all the pressure off.

(As it happens, he was right about the firm’s future — and they’re paying for it today. He, meanwhile, works somewhere else, with better prospects. But had he taken the information up appropriately, he might be one of the leaders of the firm today, and actually solving the problems he found.)

There’s a lot of advice out there about coming to interviews with questions that show you’ve taken the time to read the firm’s public documents and understand its business. Most of us then calmly drop back to the skills that got us to the position once we arrive.

Becoming someone’s protégé, on the other hand, can secure a career when all around it others are falling. A word to the wise.

What makes a start up different from organization life

Again and again, throughout my career, I’ve heard people talk about the difference between working in the private sector and working in the public sector.

Forget that. Any sufficiently large organization is indistinguishable from any other of the same size. Working in the heart of a 100,000 person bank and working in a 100,000 civil servant government are so much closer to being the same than being different it’s not funny.

There are those who think the difference between a start up and a large organization is simply that the start up only has a few people. It’s certainly true that organizations, as they grow, go through transitions. (This has to do with the phenomenon known as “Dunbar’s number”, after research done by Dunbar into the maximum number of people that can know one another at least well enough to trust without further infrastructure such as hierarchies, titles, reporting requirements, etc. substituting for the lack of trust.)

Not quite true, though, since W. L. Gore & Associates demonstrated that a company can grow to thousands of staff and yet maintain trust, simply by keeping its individual components small enough to remain trust communities. So something else is going on, and that something else matters significantly in considering your career.

What is missing in a start up is rigid structure. Yes, there’s structure: product developers are not the sales person, and so on. But in most organizations structure is rigid: opinions are seldom sought across structural boundaries (developers talk to developers, sales people to sales people, but not developers to sales people about a development problem or sales people to developers about a territory problem), and responsibilities are chained within the structural norms.

This is why a small not-for-profit can be quite rigid in its organization, although it shares the size of the start up. It’s also how much bigger organizations can retain fluidity even though their size has long since passed trust community size.

But, if you’ve spent your work life in one type of organization, and then jump to the other, you can find yourself in deep culture shock, and be headed for a fall.

The most common jump, for those of us who are up the career ladder, is from rigid structure to small scale, be that because we started our own venture or signed onto a start up/non-rigid workplace.

All of a sudden there are no bounds, no order. This is disorienting in many ways.

First of all, the old “organization man” is ripped up in an instant. Your role no longer has bounds. Its responsibility has deepened — the success of the whole becomes everyone’s job. Authority, curiously, is often shared: decisions are made after consultation and collaboration (but, unlike rigid organizations, quickly). Many items are “no one’s” responsibility (officially) — they’re simply handled as they come up.

If you’re used to a world of “I do this, and you do that, and I refer this to so-and-so when it comes up”, this can be culture shock. If you’re used to the power of a job title in a hierarchy determining whether or not this is your decision to make, quick and effective collaboration is a method that makes no “sense” in your experience. Likewise, looking around to see what isn’t being done (but needs attention) isn’t a part of your experience, either (since this place, like the previous places, always has more to do than there is time for).

Yes, you may have a title where you now are, but the world is turned upside down.

There are similar problems going the other way, one of the reasons entrepreneurial types tend to become serial entrepreneurs rather than stay with their start up, especially when it is acquired by a much larger firm.

So, does this mean that you should never try to cross the line?

Not at all. What it does mean is that you should do so knowingly, and with the supports you need in place.

The reason this matters, first of all, is that more and more of us find ourselves needing to cross over to self-employment, start up life, or (less commonly) going to an organization that has retained its fluidity. In today’s (and tomorrow’s) job market, crashing and burning is not an option.

So the person looking at crossing over needs support. Advisors who can counsel them on the challenges, be a place to bring their work experiences for advice, help them shift their mental gears from a rigid (and thus knowable) world to a world filled with unknowns.

Undertaking your diligence program, in other words, isn’t about avoiding being forced into a surprise change, or even about making a change. Yes, it is those things. But it’s also about succeeding once you’re underway in a new situation.