Career paths - a tale of two biscuits

Career paths – a tale of two biscuits

Sometimes my boss & I talk about the future, but we don’t always talk about my future working for him. Recently we talked about my options and, (somewhat uncomfortably for me) about whether I could develop and grow in my current role, or if I would be better off moving to a different team to broaden my experience.

I always find it difficult to assess how freely these things should be discussed with someone who – regardless of how much I trust and respect them – has a vested interest in the choices I make, and a powerful influence in my day-to-day responsibilities and opportunities. Declaring a desire to go elsewhere could, taken badly, result in the ‘stretch opportunities’ being allocated to those more likely to stay in the team; at the same time if I were to play down any desires to explore other options, opportunities to leverage the network and influence of my boss could be missed.

It’s a tricky balance.

One biscuit, two biscuit

Our latest discussion turned quickly to my disposition towards future opportunities, and my short- and long-term priorities. My boss suggested that I need to decide whether I was a “one biscuit” or “two biscuit” person.

What my boss was referring to was the popularly referenced Stanford experiment carried out in the late 60s. The experiment is simple: place a child in a room with a single biscuit (or marshmallow or other sweet) and tell them that if they can resist eating it for a defined period (say, 10 minutes) they will be given a second treat.

The experiment is basically designed to observe how individuals make judgements based on deferred gratification, but the resulting behaviour has been attributed to various characteristics, such as one’s emotional intelligence or the degree to which you are successful, academics,,y and/or professionally.

The question is essentially simple: do you trade off an immediate, tangible benefit in the expectation of receiving a longer-term benefit that is ostensibly greater, but much less tangible?

Making the right career judgement call

The question becomes more complex when you move away from biscuits and start to think about more subjective benefits; in my case, career progression.

How do you assess whether it’s smart to move out of a successful, established role where you are well known, well respected and can influence your network? How do you gauge the relative probability of short-term progression (i.e. promotion) vs the benefits of broadening your spectrum and becoming more well-rounded in the process?

Specialists and Generalists

There’s always a learning curve when you move from one area of expertise to another, and the more senior you get the harder it is to take the performance hit that comes with learning how a new area works. Conversely, there will come a point where you reach a career ceiling in your specialism, and the really senior roles are available only to those who can demonstrate breadth of experience and understanding.

This is traditionally described as the “skills pyramid”, at least in my corporate world. The idea is that you build a broad base of experience, and then specialise. The trouble is, the pyramid analogy is a little too cute to be accurate.

In my personal experience, the entry-level roles represent the absolute best opportunity to try out different things – get a taste of numerous disciplines, as you’ll be able to learn the ropes from scratch each time. In order to get off the bottom rung, you’ll need to develop expertise in your domain, if not your specific role, as well as forging those all-important “transferable skills”.

As you work up the organisation, you will invariably become more specialised. But unless you have a very specialist niche, or have relatively conservative ambitions, there will come a time where you need to break out of your domain and learn something new. This comes at the “middle of the pyramid”, effectively turning it into a Christmas tree shape.

If you time these opportunities well, your additional experience (assuming it’s relevant) will allow you to progress further up the chain, where you will specialise again. There may be further opportunities to broaden your experience, but they will reduce as your seniority increases.

Ultimately the role of the CEO represents the perfect achievement of gaining the broad experience needed to perform at such a role, whilst elevating to a suitable seniority to be eligible.

Biting the biscuit

The condundrum remains: specialise too early, and hit a glass ceiling with no easy escape. Focus too much on breadth, and fail to achieve the seniority needed to progress up the ladder.

The decision for me: do I eat the biscuit I have, knowing that short-term progression in my specialism is on the cards? Or do I broaden my skills, defer the short-term progression and wait for the second biscuit, without certainty or confidence that the result will justify the wait?

Are you a one or two-biscuit person? What would you do? Leave me a comment and let me know!