How to reach $1 million in annual compensation as an employee
Table of Contents
1. My Journey
2. Why did I write this?
Why a good career guide does not yet exist (until now)
Three types of career guides and incentive problems
3. Which job do you want?
Vices and Virtues
The problem with “Purpose” (or “Ikigai”)
Why Money Matters
Money as a signal of responsibility and opportunity
Compounding effect of money on your NEXT job
How money gives you flexibility and leverage
Why co-branding your career is better than “Personal Branding”
How to co-brand your career and “partner with the best”
Breadth not depth
Marketing Standards Board
Why all jobs become the same job
Power of excess capacity
4. When to switch jobs?
Be opportunistic and have patience
Working with recruiters
Two types of recruiters
5. Getting the job
Deserve the job
Solve the problem
Do the important work
Be a monopoly
Earn the job
Build the plan
You are not a consultant
How interviews work
6. Negotiating the offer
The hardest part for a reason
Know what you are worth
What if you don’t have a job?
The change risk premium
1. My Journey
I grew up a middle-class kid in Canada. I went to a Canadian college and started my career as an Account Manager at P&G selling soap to restaurants. Somehow I managed to go to a top-tier US business school, get a job at McKinsey and fumble my way to becoming CMO at multiple Private Equity and venture-backed companies. For the last few years of my career, my annual compensation was over $1MM. After my last “exit” I realized our family had enough of a nest egg that I did not need to work again to maintain our relatively modest lifestyle. I went through a bit of an existential crisis trying to figure out how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Among other other things, I started spending more time writing. I now have a reasonably successful newsletter and a book coming out later this year. I also spend time helping friends and acquaintances manage their careers — especially during times of transition.
This study guide shares my advice on how to pursue an extraordinary marketing career (and hopefully most of these comments can transfer to other careers, as well). The biggest risk from this type of advice is the advisor simply explains how THEY were successful. There are two big problems with that approach:
What works for one person does not work for all people. Knowing Einstein worked in a patent office is not going to help you develop the next theory of general relativity.
Individuals tend to attribute too much of their success to their choices. Career success (and success in general) is based on a combination of (1) choices, (2) in-born (or long-developed) skills and talents, (3) effort, (4) opportunities, and (5) luck. Humans are primed to see things as cause and effect, and most successful people KNOW they worked hard and BELIEVE they made the right choices. Consciously or unconsciously, then, they underweight the luck and random opportunities that were outside their control. This is NOT to say choices and effort do not matter. It is too easy for people who are NOT as successful as they would like to look at those more successful and attribute it ALL to luck. The truth is it is a mix of all five drivers, but it means you need to look at all advice with a large grain of salt.
2. Why did I write this?
I’ve heard many people ask, “Why aren’t there more Ben Thompsons?” (author of Stratechery, and possibly the most successful newsletter written by an individual in the world). Ben writes brilliant analysis. He has accumulated somewhere in the neighbourhood of 60,000 subscribers paying $120/year each. After paying for his expenses and assistant, Ben is likely bringing home more than $7MM/year. Why aren’t more brilliant people following that path? There are 7 billion people in the world. There must be more people with the abilities and mindset of someone like Ben. Why aren’t there more Ben’s?
I think the answer is opportunity cost. If you have the ability to do what Ben did, you also have the ability to advance up most corporate ladders. You do not need to get to the top of the ladder to earn high six figures or even seven figures per year. To leave that a job paying $1MM/year to slowly build an audience feels impossible for anyone who cares about their compensation. As a result, most of the people writing about business on the internet are people who are trying to self-promote their own products (“shucksters” is the less complementary term) or people who have never held senior positions, have much lower opportunity cost, and are writing about business as outsiders.
Most career management guides that fall into three buckets:
Guides written by human resources professionals on “how to manage your career”
“Get rich” guides written by internet hustlers
Cynical guides like “Career Warfare” that teach you how to play office politics
What is missing is a guide for traditional employees who want to accelerate their career to the executive ranks quickly AND ethically — and then continue to advance once in the executive suite. The people who could have written a book like that are too busy “doing the work” to spend the time and effort to create the guide. They have better things to do with their time.
I am a sucker for a gap in the marketplace. And it turns out that while I enjoy writing even more than I enjoy growing companies, I somehow managed to grow enough companies well enough for long enough that I have the financial flexibility to walk away from that opportunity cost and spend time doing the things I like. Like writing this document and giving it away for free.
I LIKE helping people grow their careers in ethical ways. And I have the financial flexibility now that I can do whatever I like doing. This is it.
3. Which job do you want?
When Charlie Songhurst (former head of strategy for Microsoft) was interviewed on “Invest Like the Best” he described three “vices” and three “virtues” that motivated people in their careers:
Working with people
Songhurst probes for the true motivations in everyone he interviews and even asks them to “stack rank” their vices. Until these options are articulated, most people tend to assume that other people share their own personal ranking, but different stack ranks naturally lend themselves to different jobs and careers.
There is a type of advice that says, “do what you love and you will never have to work a day in your life,” but advice like that is dangerous. For many people what they LOVE is not going to pay the bills and allow them do to other things that they LIKE (or avoid doing the things they DISLIKE). Taken to the extreme, “doing what you love” may result in someone spending their days painting, but then spending their evenings shovelling manure. To solve this dilemma, other advisors have created Venn diagrams like this:
The world would be great if everyone could find their “purpose” or “reason to get up in the morning” (a concept sometimes made more high brow by using the Japanese term “Ikigai”). For most of us, though, there will always be trade offs between the five drivers. And besides: what if you found something you love, that fit your strengths, that impacted the world, but you didn’t really like spending time with the people who were willing to pay you to do it? Or more cynically, what if your driving vices had more to do with power or fame than with money?
Here is my point: you need to decide what is important to you AND understand what the unspoken importance assumptions are for the people you are seeking advice from. If you care about becoming famous it doesn’t help to get advice on how to make more money working in a support role.
But I am also not the type to say, “all choices are equally valid.” Let me try and make the case that even if your motivations are the vices of power and fame, along with the virtues of people and impact, you should seriously consider increasing your weighting on the vice of money and the virtue of intellectual stimulation.
Why money matters, and not just for the money
I spent four summers in high school working at summer camps. Working at summer camps, even when you are sixteen, is NOT a way to maximize your monetary compensation. I believe in that first summer I was paid $40/week for a 24h/day job overseeing, entertaining and educating young people. After graduating from college, instead of spending a summer touring Europe, I decided I wanted to have one last experience working at a camp. I reached out to dozens of camps in the Northeastern United States looking for roles overseeing activities or running “counselor-in-training” programs. When it came time to commit, I negotiated hard for more money. That may seem like a funny thing to do. The difference between a “highly paid” role at camp and a “lowly paid” role is maybe $1000 over an entire summer, and I was about to enter a full-time professional job where, even at my entry level, I would be making that much in a week. Why argue for more pay?
(Aside: for many of you, the idea that I need to articulate the reasons why you should want to be paid more will seem insane. For many, “having more money is better than having less money” is the only reason you need. But, as crazy as it sounds, I think many people UNDERVALUE the benefits that come from having higher compensation)
I knew even then that what an organization was willing to pay for a role is a strong signal of the importance the organization sees for the role. WITHIN an organization, roles with more responsibility, authority, and opportunity for impact tend to pay more. In my experience, WITHIN an organization, the three vices (and to some extent the three virtues) are CORRELATED. The roles in an organization that are highest paid are also the roles that have the most authority (power), the most visible (fame), the most opportunity to have impact, be intellectually stimulating, and have control over who you spend your time with (“working with good people”). This is not always true, nor is the correlation 100%. But given the difficulty of understanding the dynamics of an organization from the outside, and given that any promises made with respect to authority, visibility, impact, intellectual stimulation and people are easily broken (or overstated), the one promise that you can be relatively guaranteed will be followed through on is how much they are going to pay you. If an organization is not willing to pay you more than the average of their other employees, there is a good chance your impact in the organization will be below the average of the other employees. The employee who is highest paid is often in the role that is best placed to influence the CEO and the entire organization. If you are being hired to be the #2 to the CEO and you are not the highest paid (other than the CEO) in the company, you may not be getting the role you are hoping for.
The second reason you want to be paid more is that compensation COMPOUNDS. Once you are making a given amount of money it is very rare for an organization to pay you less — and most organizations are set up to increase your pay each year by specific percentages for “given performance.” I was once in a situation where I had two employees with significantly different base compensations. One had a base of $180K and the other had a base of $110K. Both were at the same “level” and the lower paid manager had much stronger performance. So when it came time for compensation reviews the lower paid manager was given a 15% pay increase and the higher paid manager was given a 3% pay increase. Their new compensation was: $185K and $126K. Very few organizations like to give more than about a 15% pay increase in a given year (it often causes problems when they do — employees begin to think they were underpaid BEFORE, so sometimes higher pay increases result in INCREASED employee churn). Giving less than 3% for solid performance is often a signal of company issues rather than specific to the employee. So if the compensation of these two employees continued to increase at those rates, it would take five years for the lower paid, “higher performing” manager to overtake the middling “higher paid” manager.
More commonly you will leave a company before you catch up to a gap of that size. But when that happens the most common way companies set pay for new employees is to base pay off of the compensation of those employees in their old roles at their previous companies (with some sort of increase, say +20%). So whatever pay you get at any point in your career, that pay tends to be STICKY. Any time you can find a way to take a step-change in your pay, you are driving not just that year’s annual compensation, but a compound effect for the rest of your working life. Rapidly accelerating career compensation at +20%/year means $1000 today could mean $30K/year or more twenty years from now (Note the path from $100K to $1MM/year at +20% pay/year for 14 years).
But the most important reason you want to be paid more is for leverage and flexibility. Financial freedom is a function of spending less than you earn, and there are two obvious ways to make that happen. Assuming you are able to control your spending, each additional dollar you earn gives you more flexibility on what you do NEXT. If you are living paycheck-to-paycheck you do not have the luxury of taking time off between jobs. The ability to take time off between jobs is the best leverage you have to ensure your next job ends up being the right job.
If you can’t afford to take any time off, you need to look for your next job while you are in your current job. This leads to two problems:
You can’t afford to lose your job. If you do lose your job, you will need to find a new job quickly. Any time you are rushed you are likely to take something less than ideal. Because you can’t afford to lose your job, you will be under pressure to “play things safe” in your current role. Playing safe protects you from the downside (losing your job), but dramatically limits your upside.
When you are looking for a new role you can’t afford to have patience. If a new job comes along that is better than your current job, you will face strong internal pressure to take it at whatever terms you are offered (Assuming it is better than your current role). This reduces your leverage in future negotiations.
The longer you are able to go maintaining your current lifestyle without the need for more income, the more leverage you have to take risks, and to negotiate harder to better roles, responsibilities — and income.
A lot has been written about building a “personal brand,” and I strongly support the idea. Unfortunately, building a brand is HARD — much harder than most people, even brand marketers, realize. In addition to long-term consistency, it takes huge investments in driving awareness and getting attention to ensure your message is received. Most people who have a “personal brand,” just have a handful of people they know personally who understand what they are about. This is less “personal branding” and more “having a good reputation.” It is less similar to brand marketing and more similar to being good at sales.
Because of the difficulty building a brand, few people, even CEOs of large organizations, will ever really have one. Instead, the marketing lesson people should take from “branding” is to leverage bigger brands for your own benefit.
When I was a VP at Expedia, I could reach out to almost any organization and get a meeting. The Expedia brand was large and powerful, so many organizations were happy to discuss the idea of how we could work together. Most brands were smaller and less well known than Expedia, so linking their brand to ours gave them significant benefits. Deals succeeded or failed based on how much each side was willing to share in the value (potentially) created.
When I became CMO of A Place for Mom, things got a lot harder. Especially early on when no one had heard of us. It was difficult to get a call back. Any value in partnering with us was very transactional. There was no “halo” associated with our brand. The lack of perceived benefit is the biggest challenge with growing co-brand partnerships. If you don’t have a brand, no one is interested in co-branding with you. If you already have a brand, you are more likely to help the other brand more than you are being helped yourself. The best co-brand relationships happen when both brands are strong in different areas and they are combining to create something new (like say, Nacho Cheese Doritos at Taco Bell). But that does not help someone with no brand equity gain brand equity through partnerships. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, “it’s not worth joining any club that will have you as a member.”
But INDIVIDUALS have a unique ability to co-brand that companies do not have. There are ample opportunities to co-brand yourself with powerful brands. The first place that happens in education.
A lot has been written about how schools and colleges create value (I recommend “The Case Against Education” by Bryan Caplan, and this piece by yours truly). There is much debate about the relative value of human capital creation, signalling and selection effect in driving graduate outcomes, but for this discussion I want to focus on “signalling.”
In education theory, “signalling” means that by getting into, and graduating from, a school you have “signalled” to the market that you have what it takes to get into and graduate from that school — regardless of what you learned (or didn’t) while at the school. It explains a lot of the education dynamics in the world today, like why students are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend schools, but then get excited when a class is cancelled. They are paying largely for the signal their education is sending, rather than the skills they are developing at the school. In other words, they are “co-branding” their personal brand with that of the school.
If the only thing you knew about three job candidates was the school they graduated from (which, given the limited work experiences of most 22 year olds is mostly what you have), then you should not be faulted for assuming the candidate from the “better branded” school is the better choice for your organization. OBVIOUSLY this is not the final answer for your staffing challenges. You will want to interview the candidates, assess their intelligence for yourself, determine their passion for your company’s mission, figure out if they will fit in with your company culture, and maybe even assess their skills and temperament for the role you specifically are looking to fill. But having a great school on your resume is VERY HELPFUL early in your career — and it is one of the few things you can do when you are 18 years old that will still be on your resume when you are a 60-year-old-CEO of a publicly traded company.
So far that advice is fairly banal: “Go to the best school you can get into” is neither particularly insightful nor counterintuitive. But the important idea is that going to as good a school as possible is your first step in “co-branding” your personal brand. The next opportunity is your first job. Every job you take you are co-branding yourself with the organization you join.
It would be difficult for A Place for Mom (a small brand) to co-brand itself with Expedia (a large brand), but it is a lot easier for Edward Nevraumont (a small “personal brand”) to co-brand himself with Expedia. Last time I checked, there were over 24,000 “personal brands” currently co-branding themselves with Expedia.
Obviously not every co-brand is created equal. Dean’s list at Harvard is a better “co-brand” than “attended Harvard.” CMO at Expedia is a better “co-brand” than “assistant to the local marketing manager in Portland, Maine.” For entry-level roles, the company you are co-branding with usually matters more than your particular role.
So what makes a good company to co-brand with? In many ways it is the same as the criteria for a good school to co-brand with: The more exclusive the better. While there are lots of rankings of schools, at the end of the day, the value of the co-brand is, assuming a minimum size of school, really a function of the acceptance rate of the school. Here are the top 10 schools in America by lowest acceptance rate:
That list is as good as any ranking system from Forbes or US News and World Report. Where it does not match our intuition (Should MIT really be below Vanderbilt? Where is Stanford?), there are usually good explanations (MIT and CalTech have much lower application rates — people who know they are not going to get in do not apply, so their “exclusivity” is higher than the acceptance rate suggests; Stanford is missing because they do not disclose their acceptance rate). Exclusivity is a very good proxy for the power of a brand. Exclusivity explains why so many of these elite schools have not caved to criticism that they should be letting in more students — that would defeat the entire point of the brand they have spent decades or centuries building.
I don’t know of any media publication that ranks companies the same way US News ranks universities, but you could get a rough idea of the co-brand value of a company by considering how hard it is to get a job there. The best example of that comes from the teaching profession.
In 2011, McKinsey conducted a worldwide study of education systems and tried to determine the drivers of a top-performing system. They found four important “themes” which drove success: decentralization, a focus on under-performing pupils, school choice, and “high standard for teachers.” The last theme is particularly relevant to the concept of co-branding careers. Teachers in America tend to be both respected and disrespected at the same time. On one hand teachers are right near the top of the most trusted professions in the country. But at the same time, as Sara Brown Wessling, 2010 National Teacher of the Year, tells Education Week, “...many people in our country see teaching as though it's a second-choice profession.”
If you want to be a teacher, but also want to increase the long-term equity of your personal brand there is a path to do so: Teach For America. From Politico:
The competitive program, which has a 15 percent acceptance rate, does not require its members to have a background in education. Instead, it puts high-achievers through at least five weeks of a summer training program before placing them in a classroom.
Teach For America teachers have LESS training than traditional teachers, but possess more prestige and a much better “co-brand.” Getting a job as a teacher at “some school” in the country is relatively easy, but Teach For America attracts high achievers, and then only accepts 15% of them. Exclusivity builds the brand.
Applying the teaching example to the corporate world suggests that the best co-brand you can get in your first job out of college is the company that is least likely to employ you. Top Ivy league students defaulting into top-tier consulting firms, investment banks and (more recently) tech companies are not being irrational.
But let me add an exception to that conclusion: storytelling.
University of Pennsylvania has the tenth lowest admission rate in America. UPenn is a very good school to co-brand with. But if you take a regular Arts or Science degree at UPenn, you are also signalling that you likely did not get into Harvard. That might be okay. UPenn is still REALLY GOOD — it is a great co-brand. Not everyone can have the best co-brand. But as good a brand as UPenn is, it still isn’t Harvard.
University of Washington is another very good school. But UW’s admission rate in 2018 was 46.4% — over 6 times higher than UPenn’s. There is a marginal difference in exclusivity between UPenn and Harvard, and a massive one between UPenn and UW. But UW has something going for it that UPenn does not. If you applied to an Ivy League School and moved across the country to attend UPenn, it is highly likely you applied to — and were rejected by — Harvard. But you may have a very good personal reason for living in the Pacific Northwest and choosing to go to UW. You might not even think about applying to Harvard (or UPenn).
The UPenn student put themself into the game and “lost” (or at least got a silver instead of a gold). The UW student, on the other hand, can claim they were not in the game at all.
This framing tactic only takes you so far. It is unlikely the local little league coach would be a great major league pitcher who is just “waiting to be found.” Most students at UW, had they applied to Harvard, would not have been accepted, and whatever value they derive from the UW co-brand represents that. But an individual who distinguishes themselves at UW could conceivably tell a story that they were the exception, and if they didn’t have personal reasons to stay near home, maybe they would have the Harvard co-brand on their resume.
This idea of explaining your enrollment at a less exclusive school as a matter of personal interest — not ability — works just as well for companies.
From a co-branding perspective, it is often better to join a top firm in a field than it is to be part of a mid-tier firm in a more exclusive field. Getting a managerial job at Walmart may be easier than getting an associate role at Wells Fargo, but the Walmart manager can tell a story about how they really wanted to get into retail and Walmart was the best company in the world to do that with. The Wells Fargo associate, while signalling they were smart enough to get into a prestigious profession (investment banking), is also signalling that they were rejected by Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Lazard.
This co-branding idea also explains why mid-tier business schools are suffering. Coming out of high school getting co-branded with ANY school is usually better than no school. But once you have a school co-brand and a company or two co-brand, going back to school to get an MBA is only valuable (from a co-brand perspective) if that school’s brand is better than the brand you have built for yourself. Most young people would be well served by co-branding with HBS of Stanford GSB, but if you graduated from Dartmouth and spent three years at Goldman Sachs or Google, getting an MBA from the University of Portland likely HURTS your personal brand rather than helping it.
Early experience with a solid brand also gives you more flexibility later in your career. If your resume starts with Harvard, McKinsey, Stanford, Google, and Andreessen Horowitz — then being COO of Random.com is intriguing. If your entire resume is a series of brands that no one has heard of, you might still have enjoyed an interesting and successful career. However, you will need to prove your value without relying on co-brands to give you a leg up.
I once worked with a very strong CMO who had, unfortunately, worked for a string of unsuccessful start-ups. The CEO who I was advising was concerned about bringing him on, “Either he is not as good as he seems, or he is very bad at picking which companies will do well. Do I really want him picking our company?” The CMO had all the skills he needed to be successful, but had ended up in a difficult place because he had co-branded with the wrong companies. I intervened to get him the job (it is HARD to find good CMOs), but if I had not been there he likely would have missed out on a great opportunity because of how he had ended up co-branding himself.
Breadth not depth
During my time at General Assembly, we created the “Marketing Standard Board.” We recruited a dozen CMOs from companies known for their marketing prowess and set them to work figuring out how to develop the next generation of marketing leaders. They reached a consensus that there were three distinct “levels” to a marketing career. Individuals needed to master two or more of the skills at any given level before moving to the next:
Level 1 “Foundation”: the skills required by entry-level roles. People gain exposure to major areas of corporate operations, like customer insight, creative development, marketing channels, and marketing analytics.
Level 2 “Application”: the bundles of competencies that help a person conceive and implement strategies in a marketing specialization like brand, acquisition, retention/loyalty, or analytics/insight.
Level 3 “Leadership”: the insights required to direct organization-wide initiatives, in areas like business, customer experience, technology, or people/organizations.
The key insight was the idea of “two or more” skills. In order to move from an individual contributor to a manager you need to be comfortable with more than one “individual skill.” The more you are familiar with more skills, the better you will be able to oversee a larger team. If you want to become a VP of marketing, you need to have an even broader array of expertise. A VP might be very successful specializing in performance marketing or brand marketing, but if they want to be a CMO they will need to be able to lead both parts of the organization (and more). And if that CMO desires a CEO role, they better become at least comfortable with finance, product management, human resources, and sales.
As you advance in any career, jobs become more and more similar. There is a huge difference between a janitor, a dentist and a marketer, but the manager overseeing the janitors, dentists and marketers have a lot more in common. The VPs in charge of the managers of janitors, dentists and marketers have even more in common. And it would not be unheard of for the CEO of a janitorial services company to become the CEO of a group of dental clinics or a marketing services organization. Eventually every job becomes the same job. Specific job skills become less important, and the job becomes more and more about communication, leadership, recruiting, performance management, and setting direction. To be good at those things requires a BREADTH of skill rather than DEPTH of skill.
So any time you can find a role that will help you improve your BREADTH you will be investing for your future. This is often hard to do! When you are hired to run paid search (because you are good at paid search), it is hard to develop a new expertise in, say organic search. There will be someone else in the company running organic search. But your boss will likely be overseeing both paid search AND organic search. To get your boss’s job (or something like it) it would help if you had some expertise in organic search. MORE expertise in paid search may help you do your job better, but, at least once you are competent in your role, it won’t help as much in getting your NEXT role.
So how do you do that?
One way is to be good enough at your job that you have excess capacity. Then use that excess capacity to be helpful in other parts of the organization. Another option is to work on “side projects” on nights and weekends to fill in your skill gaps. A third option is to find a job that is cross-functional to start with. I was lucky enough to have a role at Expedia where (among other things) I worked across all the marketing channels to measure attribution. In order to do that role well I needed to understand how all of the marketing channels worked on a very detailed basis. I never ran any of the channels (with the exception of email), before I eventually moved into my first CMO role. But the experience at Expedia gave me the BREADTH to be able to build a team that oversees all of the marketing activities.
So, whenever you get a chance, try and find opportunities within roles that can increase your personal breadth of skills. It may slow you down in the short term, but the investment pays dividends later in your career. This is equally true for entry-level employees as it is for C-Suite executives — both generally need to increase their breadth if they want to take on more responsibility.
4. When to switch jobs?
One of my mentors once told me I should think about my career in two-year chunks. When you start a job, your role is to figure out what is going on, and then apply your pre-existing skills to make things better. You do that for about a year. Then in year two you should have a much better understanding of the business you have walked into. In your second year your role is to “compete against yourself” — you need to improve on whatever you did the year before. A good part of your success in “year two” will be based on how well you set up long-term initiatives in year one, but another part will be based on how you have personally improved over the course of a year. You should know more and be able to make better decisions in year two.
Then, if you want to maximize your career trajectory, it is time to leave to do something else.
These numbers are not exact. Sometimes the right time to leave is after 18 months. Sometimes the right time to leave is after three years. But the basic concept looks like this:
Come into a role, figure things out, make things better based on applying your previous experience to the new setting.
Learn from your experience and implement your new skills to make things even better.
Move on and let someone else repeat the pattern.
“Moving on” does not necessarily mean moving to a new company or even moving into a new role. Sometimes it just means taking on a different set of responsibilities or goals for the next two year phase.
I learned about this “two-year rule” midway through my career, but I was fascinated by how well it mapped to my previous experience. Here is how my career maps to the “two-year rule” post-business school:
Role #1: McKinsey Associate, ~2 years
Role #2: McKinsey Engagement Manager, ~2 years
Role #3: Expedia Marketing Executive, ~2 years
Role #4: A Place For Mom, SVP Operations, ~1.5 years
Role #5: A Place For Mom, CMO, ~3 years
Role #6: General Assembly, CMO/CRO, ~2 years
As you can see my career does NOT match the “two-year rule” exactly, but it comes surprisingly close given I did not even “learn” the rule until midway through my time at A Place for Mom.
Some might argue that you should spend more time in roles than the two-year recommendation (I have never heard anyone argue for less than two years). At times spending more than two years is fine. I spent three years as CMO at APfM and I think that was time well spent. But two years should be the benchmark. At P&G twenty years ago they recommended switching roles about every two years. Today at Amazon they encourage managers to find new roles every couple of years. There is a reason two years works well for ambitious people. Two years is enough time to figure out a role, get good at it, have significant impact, be responsible for the long-term work you put in in the beginning, but short enough that you aren’t going to become bored or begin to stagnate.
Finding a new job is difficult. Early in your career, settling on the company you work for is a high-stakes decision (as I wrote about earlier in “co-branding”). Later in your career you have less options. There are hundreds of open entry-level marketing roles at any given time in any given large city, but there might be one or two CMO roles at big companies every few months. Unless you have an unrestricted geographic preference (and even if you do), the more senior you are the longer you will need to wait to find a role that will progress your career.
Many people will tell you to maintain a “five-year plan” for your career. I think that’s fine. Thinking about where you want to go is a great exercise. But looking even five years into the future is impossible. You could pick any point in my career, and there is no way it would line up with my predictions from five years earlier.
1994: I am starting college. In five years, I thought I would work in theatre.
1999: I am starting at P&G. In five years, my best bet would be I would be an Account Executive at P&G.
2004: I am midway through business school, having just finished a summer with McKinsey. In five years, expected to have spent time at McKinsey and then left to do corporate training.
2009: I leave McKinsey, move to Seattle, and join Expedia as Senior Director of Marketing. In five years, I expect I will have moved to a bigger role at Expedia, or jumped to a larger role at another large public company.
2014: I am CMO at A Place For Mom (a small PE-backed firm). In five years I expect to set myself up to be a CEO at a mid-sized PE-backed company.
2019: After leaving APfM, I joined (and left) General Assembly. I was now doing some advising and working on a newsletter that I hoped to use to promote my upcoming book. My prediction for five years out involved publishing books and speaking professionally.
2020: Only one year later, a global pandemic hits, shutting down all speaking events. The newsletter took off and it is looking like the book will be a promotion vehicle for the newsletter instead of the other way around. My current five-year plan includes using the newsletter and related content to build out a community of “third way” marketers.
Predicting the future is really, really hard. But that doesn’t mean you can’t PREPARE for the (uncertain) future. Preparation means building a broad skill set, co-branding with the right organizations, building the right relationships, and keeping an open mind. If you do that you will be well placed to take advantage of opportunities that come your way. Recall that a successful career is a combination of:
The right choices
The right skills/abilities
The right opportunities
If that is true, then the goal should be to control what you can (make good choices, develop the right skills, put in the effort), set yourself up to be aware of potential opportunities, and take advantage of the ones that you happen to come across (through luck). The key here is to (1) set yourself up for opportunities, and (2) take advantage of the right opportunities. While it is clear that “privilege” will open more doors of opportunity for some people than others, it is equally clear than many people with access to opportunities do not take advantage of them. Furthermore, many people do not make the choices to maximize their access to opportunities, given their current situation.
The hard part is knowing when something is an opportunity and not a distraction. It is easy to see a successful (or missed) opportunity after the fact. Early employees at Google or Facebook or Amazon or Microsoft can give themselves credit for being prescient, but there are equally smart people who turned down opportunities to join or invest in these firms. Great venture capital firms hope for about 20% hit rates (5% home runs) — and they are specialists who are paid to predict start-up successes for a living. It is unlikely that your ability to pick a winner is going to be better than theirs.
So how does one identify which opportunities to jump to?
First: Eliminate the bad or unexciting opportunities.
When VCs make investments, they are looking for home runs. The 5% home runs make more return than the other 95% put together. When they look at opportunities, the first question they ask themselves is, “can this idea become really, really big?” If they can’t convince themselves of that, there is no point in investing, even if the company looks like it will be successful.
As an individual, you likely do NOT want to gamble on a 5% success rate. But you CAN try and rule out opportunities that are NOT worth your time. If a role does not have either high potential upside or the ability to build your human capital (or both), then you are likely best to avoid it and wait for something better to come along. This is why you need to have a financial cushion. The longer you can comfortably wait the less likely you are to jump at something that is less than ideal.
Good things come to those who wait.
Working with recruiters
There are two types of recruiters. The first type is paid whenever they place someone in a job. Their goal is to put as many people in front of the hiring manager as quickly as possible so that they get credit if anyone is placed. Spray and pray. They are effectively outsourced lead generation for HR managers. These recruiters generally fill more junior roles, although they are sometimes used for higher paying technical positions. The second type of recruiter is a “retained consultant.” They contract with a company looking to fill a specific role. The company agrees to pay the recruiter a set amount (usually around 20% of the expected first year compensation for the role) to help find the right candidate. The retained search recruiter is paid some percentage of that fee upfront which they use on people or resources to find someone who meets the company’s needs. They are paid the rest when the position is filled — whether or not the recruiter was the person who found the winning candidate. The first type of recruiter has an incentive to get your resume and send it to as many of their clients as possible as quickly as possible. A retained recruiter has an incentive to only put you in front of their client if they think it will be a good fit (or if they want to use you to make a specific point, like putting an overqualified candidate in front of the hiring manager to show them what type of person could go into the role if they raised the compensation or changed the responsibilities). There is also value for a retained recruiter to get to know you and have you in their database. In the short term they have pressure to fill specific roles (they are working for the company NOT for you!), but in the long term the broader their network the faster they will be able to fill the next role successfully, and the more likely they will have satisfied clients.
If you care about career advancement, you should never ignore a recruiter who reaches out to you.
Many people will not do this. It takes time to respond to recruiter outreach, and people who are trying to accelerate their careers are busy people. There is a logic to ignoring recruiters unless you are specifically interested in the role they are putting in front of you or you are actively looking for your next role. But I recommend you think broader than that.
Most good jobs are filled through either personal networks or recruiters. The chances you will find a “great” job on a job board is very unlikely and gets less likely the more senior you move in your career. If you want to maximize your chances to come across a great opportunity, it makes a lot of sense to cultivate relationships with recruiters.
If you are NOT looking for a new role or not interested in the specific job a recruiter is putting in front of you — that is okay. You can still respond to the recruiter, let them know a little about you (and what type of role you WOULD be excited about), and then, and this is key, you can be helpful. You can think through your own personal network and introduce the recruiter to your friends and colleagues that might be a fit for the role (or might know someone who might be a fit for the role). Recruiters are humans, too. If you develop a reputation of helping them find candidates faster, you better believe they will reach out to you next time when they have an interesting role.
Congratulations you have just increased the number of opportunities that will come your way. And it just took returning a few phone calls and being helpful.
5. Getting the job
First, deserve the job
Once you know what opportunity you want and you get a chance to interview for that opportunity, how do you convert that opportunity into a job offer? To start with, you need to think about the problem from the company’s point of view.
At the entry level, companies are hiring to fill slots. P&G and McKinsey have a targeted number of entry-level employees they want to hire every year, so they go out and promote the opportunity to the right places and then have an interview process to find smart, hard-working people that are likely to fit in and stick around at the company. But once you leave the mass hiring for entry-level roles, there is a good chance the company is looking to hire someone to solve a specific problem.
The first key to getting hired is helping the company (or more specifically the hiring manager) get comfortable with the idea that you can solve their problem. The way you do that is getting good at solving problems, and then communicating that ability to prospective employers. Too much interview prep is spent on superficial tactics like how to mirror an interviewer's body language, what topics to talk about before and after the interview, how to research potential hiring managers, or the relative value of email vs paper thank you notes. It’s not that those things don’t matter — they do. But they matter the way an email’s subject line matters. The right subject lines can get you a higher open rate, but the real driver of email marketing success is the content you send INSIDE those emails. The best way to get hired beyond the entry level is not to be good at interviewing, it is being good at the job the company is looking to hire you for.
It helps if the problems you are capable of solving are important problems.
Do the important work
When I was at P&G twenty years ago, I told a recruiter I wanted to work in the world of entertainment. I was far more interested in marketing movies than tampons. She offered to introduce me to her boyfriend who she thought might be able to help me think through my career. Today, I can’t remember what her boyfriend’s name or even what he did for a living, but one piece of advice he gave stuck with me:
“Always work for the part of the company that matters.”
Companies are more like a football team than a baseball team. When there is a successful play in baseball you can generally give credit to specific players. Yes, “we all win together,” but Dave was the one who hit the home run. Teasing apart relative impact is a lot harder on the football field where everyone is jumbled up together. If a quarterback makes an incredible throw to a wide receiver who runs in for a touchdown, a lot of the credit should likely go to the quarterback and the wide receiver. But there were linesmen who gave the quarterback time to see and make the throw. There were other receivers who drew coverage away from the one who received the pass. There was a running back that was waiting to be used as an option, and if he wasn’t there (and threatening enough), maybe there would have been more coverage on the wide receiver. When a company succeeds it is even more difficult to disentangle who was responsible.
But in football regardless of who was relatively responsible it is the quarterback who made the throw (and to some extent the receiver) who is going to get the majority of the credit. At companies there are roles that drive the business and there are support roles. The boyfriend was recommending I always position myself in roles that drive the business.
At P&G the roles that drove the business were consumer marketing and account management at the larger retailers (like Walmart and Costco). Finance was a support role.
At Goldman Sachs the business is driven by finance. Marketing is a support role.
At movie studios, the important executives are not marketers or finance — the talent and the legal teams call the shots.
“Important roles” have a high degree of overlap with the idea of “line roles,” and often they are one and the same. But not always. If you aren’t sure which function is the “most important” at any given company, a good trick is to look at the background of their last few CEOs. The CEOs at packaged goods firms come from marketing or sales. The CEOs of banks come from finance. The CEOs at entertainment companies come from talent (directors/producers) and often have law degrees. If you are an MBA graduate you would generally have better luck with a successful career at Amazon or Microsoft than you would at Google or Facebook.
When a company is trying to fill a role in their “important division” they will do what it takes to find the best people possible (and shift their budgets accordingly). When they are trying to fill a role in a support function they will just hire the best they can within their given budget constraints. Once hired, company policies, procedures and culture set up people in “important divisions” for more opportunities. Support personnel will, well, support the initiatives driven by the important division(s).
Just like in football, working at a company is a team sport. If finance drops the ball at P&G or marketing screws up at Goldman, it would be a mess and the team would fail together. The CEO will stand up and tell the organization that “everyone is important.” That is the CEO’s job. But for your individual career, you really want to do all you can to be working in the main, important “line” division of the company. No one will tell you this, and you likely do not want to tell your colleagues in those support roles you are even thinking about it this way, but that doesn’t make it less true.
Be a monopoly
Compensation is a basic function of supply and demand. If you have a rare skill (low supply) that lots of employers are looking for (high demand), you will make more money than the reverse (common skill that no one is interested in). One simple way you can increase your expected pay is to work in a field that is in high demand (hence all of the “trend” reports that tell college students what degree they should be majoring in). The second way is to develop a rare set of skills. To get to the $1MM+/year income level you need to do both.
The good news is that if you are focusing on marketing or even “business,” there will always be demand. Company leaders are always looking for people who can help them grow those companies. Usually those people have specialties. Marketing is the broad category, but as discussed above in “Breadth” there are lots of sub-specialties:
Market Research / Customer Insight
User Experience Design
Front End Website Development
Conversion Rate Optimization
Paid Search Specialist
There is a reason there are so many specialties: the variety of skills required to grow a company (which is what marketing is asked to do) are VERY DIFFERENT. If you took the average brand marketer and asked them to build a paid search campaign, they would have no idea what they were doing (and vice versa). As a result, companies hire teams of people with different skill sets and then put them under a VP or CMO who has enough of an understanding of the various specialties that he or she can try to set the team in the right direction.
The problem with any of those roles is supply: there are lots of people who have each of those skills. There are thousands of brand marketers and paid search specialists and CRO experts. If a company needs one of those slots filled, they can just put up a job posting and they will get dozens of applicants.
To get hired in one of these areas, you need to be BETTER than the other applicants. But even then, the most you can hope to be paid above the average is the expected difference between you and the next best candidate. Given how hard it is to assess individuals before they are actually working, that does not give you much leverage to get paid more than the going rates. No matter what the demand, there is more than enough supply to meet it, so wages do not get too out of control.
It is better if you do not have to compete against all those other marketers. If your skill set is UNIQUE then by definition your supply is extremely low — it is just you! Now demand for a unique skill set is going to be lower than demand for things like “market research specialist,” but that’s okay. You don’t need super high demand — you just need SOME demand. The bigger problem is the “non-direct competition” with your unique skill set. If you are the only one who can tame elephants, tell jokes and play the flute, and a company needs that, you are still competing against the option of hiring three people: an elephant trainer, a stand-up comedian and a musician.
What you really need are a set of skills that are not only complementary, but would also create FRICTION if a company tried to hire two or three people to do the job you can do.
Chris Rudder was a founder of OKCupid and the creator of the (very unique) blog OKTrends. Rudder used the data available from OKCupid to build extremely detailed data-driven insightful blog posts like “What questions correlate with long term compatibility?” [“Do you like Horror Movies” is in the top three], or “When someone says they are bi-sexual how much do they message men vs women?” [Both male and female bisexuals predominantly message men]. The blog was a huge hit and drove millions of users to the OKCupid site — and eventually positioned the company for a $50MM sale to IAC where they were merged with Match.com.
After the acquisition Rudder got very busy and did not have the capacity to continue his popular bog. When asked why he didn’t just hand the reins over to someone else, he said,
This is just going to sound very self-serving, but I just don’t know if that’s possible. I’m in the unique position of being a founder of the site. I just know it so incredibly well…I just don’t know how you find someone out there that can do it without a shit-load of handholding, and I just didn’t have time for that. The journalist might be able to write about it with energy, but it’s not gonna do it with a lot of analysis. Certainly a data scientist might do the analysis well, but probably isn’t going to write it very well. That’s just very, very hard position to look for.
At the time I saw the potential for what Rudder had been doing and tried to duplicate it at both Expedia and A Place For Mom. I thought if we could communicate our data in compelling ways people (and the media) would be interested.
But it did not go well.
Rudder was right. When I put a data analyst on the project the result was dry, uninteresting reports. When I put one of my star writers on it the result was fluff or just incorrect interpretation of the data. I tried teaming up a data analyst and writer together — and it still didn’t work. The two brains just did not understand each other well enough to overcome the hand-off friction and create interesting content. I had a whole new respect for people like Nate Silver and his data journalist team at FiveThirtyEight.
Data journalists have to be skilled in both writing/communicating/storytelling AND data analysis. If a company needs that skill they almost have to hire one of the rare people that have both skill sets. If they try and hire two people and get them to work together, it just doesn’t work — there is too much friction.
The same opportunity exists in any setting that would normally require teamwork.
Building a website seems like a relatively simple activity, but it has many component parts. Among other things you need to design the page for usability, engineer the page for speed, run and analyze tests on effectiveness, and ensure brand guideline compliance. I once had a Director of Conversion Rate Optimization working for me who in turn had a team that consisted of a designer, a data analyst and a front end developer. It was a great team but it did not have four times the output versus the time I had one guy working for me who had expertise in design, engineering and data analysis. That single employee (I don’t know whether to call him an engineer or a designer or an analyst) was able to produce so much more because he did not have the friction of the handoffs and decision making required to coordinate a team of four - all four of those “individuals” were inside his single brain. Eventually he left the organization because I could not pay him what he could make in the open market.
In order to move up the ranks as a marketer, you need to develop a breadth of skills. But even within each “level,” more breadth makes a difference on your ability to leverage higher pay. Nowhere is this more true than at the executive level.
Most CMOs come from either a brand or a performance marketing background. When companies are looking for a CMO, they often tell the recruiter they need someone with both sets of skills, but with an emphasis on one or the other. At the CMO level you generally need to do it all — but if you are STRONG on both sides of the marketing equation, you are extremely rare. I only know of a handful of people in the country that could step into a role on both sides. Those few people are the ones that are making seven figures (Assuming they are working at all — many make the money they need and then pursue other interests).
At each point in your career you should be thinking about how you can build a broader set of complementary skills that will make you more unique in the marketplace. That can be as simple as learning to code a front end website or how to build a survey. Eventually you should be thinking about how to be an expert in both data AND brand. I call marketers that think that way, “Third Way Marketers.” I think it is the future of marketing and you can read more about it here and here.
Earning the job
The goal of your early discussions is to figure out why a company is looking to hire someone like you. If you are NOT the right fit, you should bow out early and recommend someone else. But if you think you ARE or COULD BE the right fit, you need to demonstrate why. The best way I have found to do that involves building and delivering the work plan you would use once you had the job.
A good work plan builds out the initiatives you think you will want to launch when you start the job. The plan also spells out what you think your team structure will look like and what metrics you are going to want to collect. Your plan won’t have all the answers, but it should be a solid base you can build from — or you could hand it to someone else and have them deliver the plan. There are two obvious objections to this strategy:
Building a good work plan is a lot of work.
If you build a plan like this, couldn’t they just take your plan and hire someone cheaper to deliver it?
Both are reasonable objections. Building a full work plan IS a lot of work. The best work plans are built after spending a lot of time with the team you will be a part of. In the best case scenarios, you could take on a consulting project and get paid for building the plan. But if the job is the right job for you, spending twenty or thirty hours on a solid plan could make a huge difference to your career. If it increases your chances of getting the job by 20% and you will be making 20% more than your old job, then that is an “estimated value” of +4% increase in pay (about 2 weeks pay) — but that increase isn’t just for one year and remember that income compounds. And if this quality work plan allows you to negotiate for an additional 10% pay, that could mean 150% higher pay twenty years from now!
Most of the time these work plans you build will come to nothing. That can be frustrating. You put a ton of work into them and you don’t get the job. But you need to play the long game. You need to accept that you will often put in time and effort that will be “wasted.” But the impact you have when it does work more than makes up for that time.
What does a work plan look like? Here is one example I built and shared publicly. I built this plan when I was interviewing to be the CMO of Dubai. I had been contacted by a recruiter about the role which I found very interesting, but then he went dark. When I couldn’t get back in touch with the recruiter, I decided to take initiative on my own. I eventually found the hiring manager on LinkedIn and sent him the work plan. My action kicked the process back into gear and I ended up speaking to the movers and shakers in the Emirate. After talking to some of my personal contacts in Dubai, I was warned that my enthusiasm was misplaced (they did not mince words telling me I should avoid the role). I eventually called things off, but this document was what made the possibility possible and allowed ME to make the ultimate choice and not them.
I have a similar document for a half dozen companies I have interviewed with where I did not take the job for one reason or another (the companies rejected me or I rejected them). But I also built a document like this that I shared with the CEO and the board before I was offered the CMO/CRO job at General Assembly. At APfM, when the head of marketing handed in his resignation letter on a Friday, I spent the weekend building a document like this to pitch the CEO that I should just take on the company’s marketing responsibilities.
First you need the opportunity. Then you need to recognize the value of the opportunity. And then you need to do the hard work to capitalize on that opportunity. The good news is there is a good chance your competition is not going to do the work (I rarely see these types of documents when I am the one doing the hiring), so this works more times than you might think.
You are not a consultant
It is possible to go too far with the idea that you need to solve a company’s specific problems. If a company just needed a specific problem solved, they would hire a consultant. When they are looking for an employee, they want someone who can, yes, solve the specific problem, but also become a team player that will have a high likelihood of solving the NEXT problem that comes up.
How do you demonstrate that you are a good all-round problem solver who will make the company a better place?
Part of that is BEING an all-round problem solver who will make the company a better place. If you possess the right skill stack, you should have a breadth of skills that will help you excel at a variety of tasks. And if you are thinking around the idea of “adding value” instead of “playing politics,” you should be pushing the company towards a better place. Now how do you demonstrate that stuff BEFORE you are hired?
The first thing to recognize is that interviews are not very good at predicting whether someone will be a good employee. My first Master’s degree was in human resources and I remember the class where we learned how well different interview techniques predicted on-the-job performance. The shocking truth was that ALL the techniques were bad. The only exception were the scores interns received at the end of their three-month internships; they were loosely correlated with their scores as full time employees (so even “short-term employment performance” was not a great predictor of “long-term employment performance”). When you combine this terrible historical performance at prediction with the importance of getting hiring and recruiting correct, it is no wonder there are many consultants and advisors who help companies think through how to better improve their interview processes.
So know that the fact you will be good on the job does not mean that you will win the interview process.
How interviews work
Many interviews recycle the same old formats and questions. The best of them assume that “historical performance predicts future performance,” and so spend time and effort trying to figure out what your historical performance looked like.
One way to do that is to ask you for stories about things you did in the past. Questions like, “tell me a time your team did not agree with you on the best way forward and what you did?”
A good interviewer will basically repeat a three step process:
“Tell me what happened”
“What did you think when that happened?”
“Then what did you do?”
And then repeat:
“What happened next?”
“What did you think when that happened?”
“What did you do then?”
The “what happened” is the least important part of the loop. What the interview is really digging for is how you think about different situations (and to some extent how do you act on those thoughts). The entire exercise is a way of figuring out your internal thoughts in a real (rather than theoretical) situation. Many companies are looking for very specific answers to their questions, and the interviewers job is to try and tease those answers out of you. Call this the “good cop” interview.
The second problem the interviewer is trying to solve is making sure you aren’t lying.
Everyone lies. Imagine a line. On the left is the massive lies that resulted in the fraud of Enron or Bernie Madoff. On the other end of the spectrum are parents lying to their kids about the tooth fairy. The goal of interviewers is to get the candidates to move their “spin” closer to the tooth fairy and further away from Madoff. Bad interviewers do this by “looking into your eyes to see the truth” or making you uncomfortable so you might slip up. But good interviewers will just ask you for details, and be sure you know they will be following up:
“Tell me what your manager is going to say when I call them?”
“What will your team members disagree with you about when we talk to them?”
It is very hard for most people to lie when asked a question like that (and very dangerous to lie if the interviewer follows through with their “promise/threat”).
The key in these interviews is to just stay calm, stick with your story, and demonstrate that you are both honest and competent. Unlike questions about your “greatest weakness” where the answer is always a strength in disguise, it is fine to admit failures and mistakes in these types of interviews. The key is to talk about what you were thinking at the time, WHY you made those mistakes, what you learned from the situations, and what processes you put in place to make sure the SAME mistakes would not happen again.
6. Negotiating the offer
This last section is a little too sensitive for public consumption. If you would like to read it, just submit your email and I will send you the content about negotiations. Your email will also be subscribed to the Marketing BS newsletter. Every Tuesday morning, I share my perspectives about stories in the mainstream media and I (usually) explain why I think they’re getting it wrong. Plus, I highlight effective strategies for “third way” marketers.
Here are some of my previous articles I think you might enjoy:
Thanks for reading.
Stay safe and keep it simple,
Edward Nevraumont is a Senior Advisor with Warburg Pincus. The former CMO of General Assembly and A Place for Mom, Edward previously worked at Expedia and McKinsey & Company. For more information, including details about his latest book, check out Marketing BS.