FROM MANAGING A CAREER TO
TRAVERSING CAREERS: what the winners do and how you can learn from them.
FINANCIAL EXECUTIVES INTERVIEW BY DIANE ALBERGO OF
MARYANNE PEABODY AND DR. LAURENCE J. STYBEL OF STYBEL PEABODY LINCOLNSHIRE,
February 24 2004:
FREE AGENCY IS BOTH TRUE AND MISLEADING
Economists like Robert Reich and popular business
magazines like BUSINESS 2.0 began to write about Free Agent Nation: Under a free agent model, executives
have careers that resemble professional sports stars, smoothly shifting from
one major league team to another major league team through the work of third
parties. In the sports and entertainment sectors, these third parties are
called Agents. In other sectors,
these third parties are called recruiters.
This model implied executives smoothly move from one
senior executive position to another. The Free Agent model may work for “name brand” executives who come
from “name brand” companies. But
it would be misleading to assume it works for all executives.
Let’s look at Sports, Diane.
Professional athletes are an elite segment of the general
population. Within this elite
segment, only 10-15% of this elite group can count on the Free Agent model to
work in their favor.
For the 85th percentile and below, when their
contracts with one major league team are not renewed, there is no smooth
transition. It may mean going to
the minor leagues or going out of the professionals and starting a new
And Diane, the free agent model doesn’t even work for the
top 10-15% of the professional sports players forever. Age takes away marketability for all
of us. Even the elite of the
elite will find free agency wont’ work for them forever.
The model remains the same beyond the narrow world of
sports: Free Agency works for
the top 10-15% of an elite group. And even they can’t count on the Free Agent model to work for them
TALK ABOUT STOPPING TO MANAGE A CAREER UP THE LADDER AND
START TRAVERSING YOUR CAREERS. WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
Let’s assume, Diane, that FEI listeners buy our argument
that the free agent model is both true and misleading.
The basis of the free agent model says winners smoothly
leap from full time job to full time job.
The notion of moving from a “good” corporate job to “Temporary
Help” as a consultant or an interim executive can be both humiliating and
But it is the way the world works for most of us.
And it doesn’t mean you are a failure.
This is a critical concept, Diane, for executives to
grasp. And it is a critical
concept for nonworking spouses of executives to grasp.
DO YOU MEAN?
Here is an example from our practice:
Jack was CFO of a Fortune 1000 company in a
declining industry. A larger player acquired Jack’s company and he received a
one-year severance agreement as part of his exit package. Jack spent the first nine months
aggressively networking for a full-time CFO job in his geographic area, while
making it clear that a full-time CFO position requiring relocation would be a
second choice. By month ten,
Jack became concerned about his family cash flow situation, and began looking
for interim CFO assignments or project consulting assignments.
Jack found his network unresponsive and the reason
was obvious. Jack had clearly
signaled early in his job search that Project Assignments were not on his
original career agenda. Jack’s network reasonably concluded that he had
failed to achieve his goals and was now desperate. Jack is now approaching month 24 without either employment
assignments or project assignments. He refers to himself as feeling like a bottle of milk at a supermarket
whose freshness date has expired.
We work with executives like Jack every day. His story is both unhappy and
common. It need not have ended
BUT WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH TRAVERSING CAREERS INSTEAD OF MANAGING A
Managing A career often assumes upward progression. The metaphor of a ladder is often
We use the metaphor of traversing.
The skiing term of traversing means moving from a straight
line to a zig zag pattern along different terrain. During your ski run you may traverse over ice patches,
powder snow, or come up against moguls.
Moving up the ladder requires discipline. Traversing requires discipline and
Let’s get back to the example of Jack.
Jack needed to understand and accept that his career may
have begun as an employee but it would most certainly end as a
consultant. Nor did he
understand that a lifetime of work does not involve managing a single career
comprised of a series of corporate jobs. It is more like managing two careers – one focusing on
employment assignments and the other focusing on project assignments.
This is what we call traversing careers as opposed to
managing A career.
In our experience, less than fifty of the eight hundred
executives we have worked with have mastered the discipline and flexibility
required to be successful in traversing two different terrains or
careers. One career is called
Employment Assignment or W-2 relationships. The other career is called Project Assignment or 1099
But they are both assignments.
WITH YOUR EDGE
In traversing on skis, you lead with your ski edge. Your edge gives you maneuverability.
In career traversing you lead with your skills edge. Your edge gives you maneuverability
through different terrain.
James is an example of one of our 50 executives:
After receiving his MBA
from Columbia University, James went into banking. Various assignments at Mellon Bank and Bank of America
eventually led to James’ being hired as President/CEO of an Oregon bank. In 1990, James’ bank was acquired and
he was without employment, so James created a one-person consulting firm,
whose initial focus was on what James called “credit dependent
companies.” Using his personal
relationships with West Coast bank presidents, James was able to negotiate
settlements so that both sides could have something of value.
By 1994, the recession had lifted, and one of James’
clients came to him for consulting assistance. One consulting opportunity led to an offer to become Chief
Operating Officer. His
assignment was to double the size of this medical products distribution
company and then sell the company to a national player in the industry during
a time when rollups were attractive IPOs.
This assignment was completed within eighteen months. Once
again James opened his consulting practice. One of his clients was a nonprofit organization. This consulting assignment brought
him exposure to new areas like fund raising and working with agencies in
Washington, DC. This assignment
was completed after two years. The contacts James developed brought him to
the notice of a Board member of a non-profit company in his town. James was offered the position of
Chief Executive Officer for an Oregon human services organization. It has a budget of $265 Million and
its impact is felt state wide.
James has been a bank president, a distribution company
COO, and a nonprofit CEO. Between these Employment Assignments, there has been a constant theme
of Project Assignment work that leads him to the next Employment Assignment.
James has had many job titles and in many different
industries. But he always leads
with his edge. What is James’
Here is what James says:
“I have centered my
professional life on one strong theme: I solve financial/organizational
problems. Had I identified
myself as a ‘banker,’ my goose would have been cooked as the banking industry
continued its consolidation. Instead I have worked with medical products, retail companies,
construction companies, a giftware company, and health care products.
It has been fun, a real
learning experience. But my core
identity remains the same. That never changes.”
Again, the concept is in career traversing you lead with
your edge and that gives you maneuverability to move over different terrains.
Ted is another career traversing executive who has a
clearly defined edge.
Ted began his IT career
working with a variety of large corporations, beginning with EDS, the global IT outsourcing firm and Honeywell. Five years later, he moved to Monchik
Weber, a consulting firm. His success as a consultant in an assignment
involving ocean cargo issues led to an opportunity to become CIO for a company
in the ocean freight transportation industry. Five years later, he was once again consulting. But the consulting assignment helped
him gain credibility in the financial services sector. Ted is now CIO for a
global financial services company.”
In commenting on his professional life, Ted finds himself
a solid constant in a series of ever-changing Employment Assignments and
“My skills are coaching
and developing people in technical environments. Internal or external, I use the same tools. I just apply those tools in different
MOVE ON TO MASTERY OF JOB CONTENT. YOU LABEL THIS GOING FORM MANAGERIAL/PROVINCIAL TO
TECHNICAL/COSMPOLITAN AND BACK AGAIN. CAN YOU DEFINE THESE TERMS?
MASTERY OF JOB CONTENT: from managerial/provincial to technical/cosmopolitan and
In the employment assignment trajectory, managers do not
do line work themselves. They
manage the line work of others. The higher one moves up the corporate ladder
in corporate leadership, mastery
of management becomes more important than mastery of technical content. Mastery of the unique political and
cultural issues in accomplishing goals within the company is critical. We call this combination of knowledge
large companies have in-house universities that are designed to be
Even companies that send key executives to advanced
management programs at global business schools are engaging in
managerial/provincial logic. It
is provincial in that the advanced management program may have a world-class
group of professors. But when a
company selects a Harvard Business School program over a University of
Chicago program over an Amos Tuck type of program, they are making a
provincial statement about what values/perspectives are most appropriate for
that particular company.
Mastery of managerial/provincial perspectives seldom is an
asset when traversing to the project assignment terrain.
Consultants and interim executives are hired because of
specific content expertise. They
are appreciated because they provide an understanding of how other companies
in other industries handle similar problems. We call this type of knowledge
It is a cliché to state that education is an on-going
process throughout life. We are
taking that cliché one step further.
What we are saying, however, is that the pull of
managerial/provincial versus technical/cosmopolitan should guide your
selection for how to spend your scarce time for professional development.
Let me again speak about Ted, the CIO of a global
financial services company:
Ted’s company would be supportive
of him taking executive education programs in strategy or the management of
R&D at highly ranked business schools.
What is Ted doing?
Instead, Ted is taking a course
on technology related to large database applications at a local community
This is the type of course Ted
would normally encourage for subordinates three or four Suites below him
within the company.
What is the logic behind Ted
spending time at a community college?
Ted knows that his company is actively considering
it being acquired by one of three competitors. Achievement of that exit strategy would probably mean the
end of Ted’s employment assignment as CIO. If that happens, Ted believes that his next assignment
would be a project assignment and he will get the opportunity through his
guild. To prepare himself for
that next assignment, Ted wants to be on top of the latest technology
issues. He wants to be a
hands-on, cosmopolitan technologist.
REQUIRES A GREAT DEAL OF MENTAL ABILITY TO MANAGE CAREER TRAVERSING. (MP)
Once you get used to a traversing,
the value of Hockey great Wayne
Gretzky’s comment become even more obvious: 'skate to where the puck is going to be.' The great skiers have the ability to
be in the moment on one terrain while simultaneously anticipating how the
terrain is going to change in the future. Great investors have this ability. Why be surprised that people with
great careers have this ability?
MOVE ON TO MASTERY OF RELATIONSHIP MANAGEMENT. YOU LABEL THIS GOING FORM NARROW BANDING TO
BROAD BANDING. LET’S DEFINE
TERMS BEFORE WE MOVE ON.
The demands of scarce executive time and leveragability
over vendors make it attractive for corporations to have relationships with a
few well-branded, large firms. We call this move narrow banding of relationships.
Narrow banding of vendor relationships has been very
popular these days.
Restricting outsourced work to well-known, large brand
names is an easy decision and reduces political risks. All executives know the saying,
“Nobody was ever fired for bringing in IBM.” Time saved through narrow banding of external
relationships can be applied for critical internal relationship management
Based on or work with corporations over the years, we
believe narrow banding of external relationships is not in the company’s
interests and certainly not in the interests of executives whose careers will
traverse through employment and project assignments.
It is indeed true that no executive was ever fired for
bringing in well-known name brand names into their companies. It is also true that executives do
not get promoted because they have reputations for setting their speed
dialers for the “usual suspects.”
When executives take the time to learn the best, most cost
effective resources for their company’s needs, the company wins. For example:
A company in the food distribution industry wants
to look at its sales compensation plan.
There is no glory or savings in calling one of the
four national compensation firms and asking for a proposal. On the other hand, the Chief HR
Officer knows that there is a boutique firm in Miami that focuses on sales
compensation for the food distribution industry. Its fees are 30% less than the large compensation firms.
The Chief HR Officer knows he will be dealing with the owner and not a junior
In an era where more non-core business functions are
getting outsourced, senior executives with broadband relationships know that
they can provide unique value to their employers. One executive we know allocates one day a month from
4:30-6:00PM to meet new vendors and get a sense of what is going on.
Diane, executives with sparkling careers avoid narrowing
external relationships into a few large vendor buckets. They want many relationships with
many outstanding vendors, both large and small. One of those relationships can help them move to
their next assignment.
Narrow banding does a disservice to your employer and
often fails to help your next career move.
Broad Banding is a win-win.
Broad-Banding of relationships is the winning strategy for
ADVISE WOLD YOU GIVE THOSE IN OUR AUDIENCE WHO ARE CURENTLY EMPLOYED?
Keep you network warm….always.
Our clients failure to grasp the traversing nature of
careers management is most powerfully felt when leaders in the employment
assignment phase let great networks grow cold.
People are not enthusiastic about helping executives who
only contact them when they need
On the other hand, the time demands of full time
employment provide little ability to keep good networks warm.
Scarce time needs to be allocated strategically.
One CEO has outsourced his keeping the network warm.
The firm created a one-year “keep in touch” campaign that
involves the firm designing and initiating a contact program for the
executive. We send out six
mailings per year.
Each letter goes out on the CEO’s personal stationary. The CEO only has to sign the letters
with a personal note at the bottom of each letter.
You don’t need to hire us. If you can use your secretary, do it. If not, contract out on a local
Keeping the network warm is hard to implement.
To move from good intentions to good actions, we recommend
that clients schedule one hour a month in their calendars to make calls to
the most important 20% of their network list. If an executive as a contact list of 200, this means a
staying in touch by phone with 40 people over a one-year period. That’s not hard to do over a one-year period.
That means reaching out to four people a month.
FEI members can do it if they schedule it in their
easily be accomplished by reserving one hour a month. The agenda of such conversations is
simply to remain in contact and to inquire how you might help the other
Dr. Laurence J. Stybel & Maryanne Peabody
STYBEL PEABODY LINCOLNSHIRE
60 State Street, S. 700
Boston, MA 02109
“Global Career Management, One Career at a Time” through
the integrated Lincolnshire network of 114 offices and 242 consultants