We're coming into that time, at work, when we have to put down goals for the next year, which will in turn provide the basis for our performance assessments at the end of the year. I've been in my current job for three and a half years now, and although that's not a terribly long time to be at the company, it is longer than many people within the company stay in one role. Moving from job to job within the company is fairly common, and people consider it to be a good way to get to understand lots of different aspects of the company.
No one, however, is particularly eager to see me move around to another job, because running the pricing team is seen as specialized enough that they're concerned if I moved elsewhere there wouldn't be someone else who could do the job as well. At the moment, that's fine with me. I have three great people working for me, and we all get along very well. I enjoy my work, and people seem to think that I do well at it.
And yet in an odd sort of way, this takes some getting used to and represents a change in my life, at least professionally.
My BA is in Classics. I never went to business school, never took a course in finance or marketing, and never got an MBA. The way that I got where I am now is a crooked path, the turns of which are mostly defined by looking around for things that weren't going well, problems that needed to be solved, and then offering to help. Along the way, the selling point I've always tried to push is: I can learn quickly.
We need a database for product information? Okay, let me go look at a book on database design. Need a website? No problem, I'll pick up a book and figure it out.
In a department in which most adhoc reporting and analysis is done in Excel, I apparently pass for an Excel guru. Every so often people ask me for advice on classes to take in Excel, but I've never really taken one -- and so far as I can tell virtually none of the other "experts" have either. We're just the people who read the help files and Google around trying to figure out how to do something.
So I picked up skills and I picked up responsibility and I was always looking for what new thing I could do in order to get ahead.
But somewhere along the way, I learned pricing. I originally got a job on a pricing team because the manager needed someone who could build a database, and he knew that I was good with databases. By the time I'd build our pricing tools, I'd learned a fair amount about pricing. So long as you can think analytically about problems that have several different dimensions, learning about pricing is honestly not hard. With my high school level math skills and my self trained database and Excel abilities, I'm able to pass for an expert now that I've had almost ten years of experience in it. Maybe anyone can do that. Maybe that's how paternal grandfather managed to turn a WW2 era job dealing with building airplanes into a career in aerospace engineering without ever actually going to college. But not everyone does do it. I did, and now I'm "the pricing guy" around here.
Last year about this time I sat down with a mentor and former boss to talk about career moves, and I started talking about how I needed to make sure that someone on my team was developing into someone who could replace me, so that I could in turn rotate to some other job in the company and develop the generized experience that would allow me to be promoted. He basically said two things:
1) If you're a specialist, why do you think that you need to move into some other part of the company instead of sticking with your specialty?
2) If you were promoted, you'd be a vice president. Do you want any of those jobs and do you think you can do one them?
I've been chewing on these for nearly a year.
The first took a lot of getting used to, because although I'd got my last two jobs on the basis of having experienced in pricing, at some level I still thought of myself as a generalist. I was a generalist when I started doing pricing work, and I still have the same ability to learn that I had back then. But what I did with that ability to learn things was to learn a specialized field and get promoted a couple times on that basis. I was hired to be the head of pricing at my company, so maybe it's time to admit that I'm now a specialist.
The second has also taken some reassessment.
Graduating in the middle of the burst of the .com bubble, with a degree in Greek & Latin, I had more than a few people tell me that I would be able to ask "Do you want fries with that?" in three languages, who of which were dead. In other words, I had no marketable skills. My first jobs didn't pay a whole lot, and we were living in Los Angeles where our one bedroom apartment was costing us over a thousand a month. (I'm sure they cost even more now, but where we live in Columbus you could still get a place for half that.) So understandably, I was very, very focused on getting ahead. I'm not sure I ever answered a potential boss's query "Where do you want to be in three to five years?" with "Your job," but it's always what I thought.
For a long time, my definition of doing a good job in my career has been "getting promoted."
Well, here I am. I manage the pricing team. And as I look around at the people who are a level above me, I'm not sure that I'm particularly qualified or eager to have their jobs.
This may be as high as I go.
It's not a bad thing. Honestly, it's a great job. It pays well, and the work is interesting. But after always thinking about the future in terms of "When can I take the next step up?" it's odd to think that this might be the end of the line. Yeah, experience changes thing. If there comes a point when I've been running the pricing team here for ten years instead of three, I'll probably be deeper into a lot of issues and consulted on more things. There would be a gradual expansion of responsibility. Or perhaps someday I'll end up going to another company to run their pricing function, with all the challenges that come with mastering something new or building a new team. And no matter what, there's always more to learn, more projects to work on, more ways to apply the basic skills and techniques of my professional discipline.
But there may not really be any "up" in a formal sense from where I am. And in the process of adjusting to that knowledge I've been realizing how much of my thinking about work over nearly twenty years has been built around the idea of advancement. I need to learn to think in other ways.