I’ve had an interesting career so far. Lots of high profile positions and senior level roles in global companies, and they all look great on a resume. The only problem is that many of these previous roles don’t necessarily reflect where I want my career to go in the future. Is it nice to have a “Senior Director” or “Vice President” title in my background? Sure, but are these the roles I want to have going forward? Not necessarily.
I have always been someone who enjoys doing stuff. Whether it’s making something tangible like a leather tech bag or developing and managing a big, global marketing program which is less tangible, but no less real. I like getting my hands dirty.
Designing and crafting leather bags is probably the most tangible thing I can imaging doing. In developing marketing programs, I like being the person who does most of the writing, oversees photo shoots and works with the agency teams to get all of the various components finalized and ready for launch; setting schedules, timelines and aligning all of the pieces in the marketing puzzle. It’s very rewarding on a personal level and at the end of the day I feel I’ve achieved something.
In my experience, the higher you go in an organization, the more political it becomes, with various colleagues and peers playing a game of personal positioning (read sucking up) while taking credit for the achievement of their staffs. Believe me, I’m as good at playing the political game as anyone. Early in my career I had a mentor who was ruthless in how she approached the corporate battlefield and for some reason felt compelled to teach me everything she knew about getting ahead. I took what she had to teach and adapted it to my less-aggressive personal style, but it was effective for moving up and around various organizations. The only problem was that the higher in an organization I got, the less I enjoyed what I was doing (except one time, and that’s discussed below). I wanted to be back in the place where I was doing real stuff, building, creating and learning more every day. In the higher-level roles, I found that they are more about managing expectations, other peoples achievements (and often taking credit for them) and less about what actually gets done.
The “What do you see yourself doing in five years?” interview questions is one that I find somewhat baffling these days. If you look at my resume, you’d think that my answer would be “I want to be back in a VP level role!”, but the reality is, I just want to be doing something meaningful that is tangible and makes a difference. The tough part is getting people to understand that I am not being disingenuous. Really, I’d rather be in a great individual contributor role, or managing a small team that makes a real impact on a business. It’s not that the title is completely irrelevant, but it is less important than the contribution I/we are making.
There was one real exception to this, however: Nortel. My last job at Nortel was as the Director of Global Marketing Communications for their Global Services business. Technically, I was responsible for managing the team that developed marketing communications programs and campaigns supporting the business across both vertical industries and our horizontal consulting services business. As was the case with many technology companies, the global services business was our revenue and profit center. Nortel Global Services did a lot of very cool things and developing communications programs for them was a blast. It may sound crazy, but it helped that the company was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the time because it really focused everyone on our common goals and eliminated almost all of the politics from the equation. We were doing real things that had a goal and a purpose and no time for politics, personal positioning or BS. It was glorious! One of the things that made it so great was that the title was kind of irrelevant. We had tiny budgets, small teams and had to do significant amounts of the work ourselves. It was tangible and real and at the end of the day we could each say “I made a difference”. (Somewhere in a box I still have the nice, shiny “Gold Award of Excellence” I received for the work we did)
That job was the exception, not the rule. It felt more like a Campaign Manager role than a Global Director role and I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much. Campaign Manager, Marketing Manager, individual contributor, whatever, the title is not that important any more. I have no desire to ever again report directly to a sociopath CEO who takes pleasure in intimidating his employees, or to the narcissistic VP who likes being quoted in the press more than making critical decisions and spends serious amounts of company money at strip clubs with customers in order to avoid of doing their job. I want to be somewhere that I can do stuff, make a difference and see tangible results when all is said and done.