Congratulations. Your future is bright. You have secured promising jobs in consulting, banking, or corporate. The signing bonuses have been deposited, and you are perhaps on that European trip that, unlike the one after college, doesn’t involve sleeping on trains.
As your graduation speaker (yeah I know it’s June) I am obliged to offer you advice on your career. So here it is: start planning your next career move.
What???? While some of you will have long, successful, careers in your chosen field, most of you will not. One reason – most of you won’t be that good at what you do. Professionals in large organizations usually hit the proverbial wall at around 40, unless they are good enough to advance into senior management. Most of us aren’t.
So, start thinking of yourself – now – as a free agent. A product that you are trying to market. What is it that you can DO? What skills do you have that you can sell directly to an individual or business, on a project basis? The fact is that most of the skills we pick up in large organizations are actually pretty useless, except for succeeding in a large organization. Presentations. Managing a team. Sitting in endless face-time meetings.
I had to go through this assessment early in my 40s after a clumsily successful career in tech finance in the Silicon Valley. All of a sudden, recruiters weren’t calling. It turns out that there were a lot of people with better resumes, better networks, and more drive than I did who wanted to be tech CFOs. Not to mention younger. I stumbled along in a couple of middling roles for the next few years, until I hit my late 40s and there was truly nothing available. I had to look at myself and say “what can I do that people or businesses will pay me to do?” The answer I found, without the safety net of corporate employment, was: not much.
I had noticed in my tech finance career that those with Big 8/6/4 CPAs were highly desirable. So I decided to study and sit for the CPA exam. While I would have to back door into the CPA license (accounting firms don’t hire 40-somthings into junior positions to do 2 years in audit), I was able to do it, and started marketing myself as an accounting and tax expert. Certainly a far cry from a tech CFO, but hey, people were paying me to do stuff!
A couple of fortunate breaks later, I have positioned myself as a fractional CFO to emerging technology companies. In a sense, I’m back to where I left off in corporate, but I wouldn’t have the confidence to do what I am doing now had I not taken a step back, revised my skill set, and rebranded myself. I’m no longer dependent on one company, one boss, to make or break my employment. It’s less secure, but provides more freedom. And it feels great to be self-employed.
So, in summary, my advice is to immediately start thinking about your next career move. Always have a plan B. Think about yourself as a free agent – you owe no loyalty to your employer. Always be assessing your skills. What would you do if you had to market yourself as anything but a W-2 employee? What is your product? No one is going to pay you to make presentations or sit in meetings. The fact is that after 40, large organizations are not your friend. You’re old, expensive, and disposable. But the good news is that with planning, you can be in control during your entire working life.