Leveling up your career and your income – a key strategy!

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All but the newest readers of this blog will know of my enthusiasm for the “Two Sides of FI” YouTube project on which I’ve been working lately. We now have two episodes available for viewing. Our most recent installation, “Two Careers, Two Paths to Financial Independence“, is really picking up steam in terms of views – it’s very exciting! Cutting our conversations down to ~30 minute episodes means we often end up with great content left on the editing room floor. That’s why movies have Deleted Scenes and Director’s Cuts, right? But how does this relate to telling you how to level up your career?

This episode concerned our career paths, which between my creative partner Eric and I, differed quite a bit. In my case, I undertook a strategy he termed “leveling up” my career. In my mind, it is really just working smartly (not merely harder!) to grow my income and my assets in order to achieve my goal of financial independence and early “retirement”. Since I couldn’t dive into all the details on the YouTube video, I’d like to share more about that with you here. Irrespective of your own path – FIRE or otherwise, I believe you will find something of use. If you haven’t yet watched the episode, I think you’ll find it good background to the rest of this post below:

You must establish and maintain a strong personal brand

This section won’t read like an obvious strategy to level up your career and income, and isn’t something we talked about in the video. Yet I believe this is the right starting place. Above all, you simply must work hard and do high quality work. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet I think you’d agree that many of your coworkers miss the mark on this. Most industries – biotech was mine – are rather “small worlds” when it comes down to it. As such your reputation will always precede you, particularly in today’s connected world. Trust me, it’s easy to find out what kind of worker an applicant is via LinkedIn contacts you both share – most people do this homework, I assure you. I always strived to do high quality work, to be known as one willing to work hard to achieve the goals, and to be someone people could rely upon. As I result, I have gotten jobs that I wasn’t a strong candidate for on paper largely on the basis of my reputation. I bet some of you have as well. I got hired to build and run a customer support organization without ever having done so before. Hell, I’ve hired a couple of you because I knew what kind of talent you had, irrespective of whether you ticked all the boxes on a job description! This. happens. every. day. Make sure you’re on the right side of that equation in your own careers.

One strategy in establishing my brand was to find ways to be known; to “put myself out there”, and volunteer for opportunities that arose. I also asked for meetings with management where appropriate to propose new ideas or even role changes for myself. I saw needs and I formulated ways to improve things, or add capabilities I felt were absent. In the best case, they’ll agree with you – and voilá: You just created a new opportunity for yourself! Early in my career, I turned a lab role into a bioinformatics position for myself, gaining a nice office and support for coursework I wanted to take to advance my skills – just by making the case to my boss. That role didn’t even exist before I proposed it!

Is there risk associated with this approach? You are likely creating more work for yourself, for starters. In addition, management may well disagree with your proposal and that won’t feel very good, particularly if you’ve put a lot of work/thought into it. But if they’re good leaders, they’ll respect your initiative and will be that much more likely to consider you for a future opportunity. If they judge you negatively or there are repercussions for your proposal, I would recommend looking for a new job. Don’t ever work with people who don’t value initiative or respect people who (reasonably) challenge the status quo!

“I figured out what annoys me about you. You’re not the most likable person at this company, but you are among the most liked. You get along with everyone and that makes me crazy…How do you do that?”

Those are the words that a particularly cantankerous colleague confronted me with one day at work. For the record, I am not liked by everyone. Frankly, I have firsthand knowledge that I annoy the crap out of some people. But it is true that I have always recognized that working well with others is a path to success. You never know when you will need help with something, right? When it comes time to recruit team members, don’t you want to be someone people want to work with? I’ve always tried to find ways to connect with people and to gain their respect – even if they don’t “like” or agree with me. I try to listen well and understand perspectives that differ from mine. I attempt to defuse conflict into productive discussion where possible, and work towards solutions. Again, this sounds obvious, but give some thought to how poorly some people do this. Make no mistake: you won’t – and don’t need to be friends with all your colleagues. That’s not the aim here. But strengthening your diplomacy skills is a key element of building leadership muscle.

Broadening your skills is essential for advancement

In many fields, it is easier and faster to advance in salary and title/level by changing companies as opposed to staying within a given company. While I do recommend and did practice this approach, truly leveling up your career takes more than that. One of the most impactful things I did was leave my familiar playground of science / R&D to take a product management role at the same company. The VP of R&D thought I was crazy to pursue this role and tried to talk me out of it. At that point, I’d spent the entirety of my then 12-year career as a scientist or R&D leader. He didn’t understand why I’d leave that path and “throw away my career” (his words) to join Marketing! I knew it was the right move. Sure, I could continue to ascend in R&D management and lead bigger teams. But for new and larger opportunities to open to me, I had to broaden my abilities – and here was a safe way to do it! I already had a good reputation at this company (see the first section above) and knew the technology well. That meant they’d be willing to take a chance with me in a first-time role; not so easy for an external candidate. I could always go back to R&D anyhow, right?

That role turned out to be an absolute game changer for me, and is a clear pivot point halfway through my career. In one of many small decisions that yielded big impacts, it was a simple lunchtime conversation with friends that inspired the courage for me to talk with the head of Marketing about the job. Learning product management filled in huge gaps in my knowledge, including many aspects of business and operations. I didn’t spend the money nor the time to earn an MBA (though having the company pay for this can be a good strategy), instead learning much of essential parts of that curriculum through on the job training! Through this role and ones that followed, I gained the breadth of experience to make me a viable candidate for senior management jobs that would come later.

This is just one example of how you must stretch yourself and leave your comfort zone to truly grow. I’ll be honest, there were some wholly uncomfortable times in that job. My peers in regional marketing had a lot more experience than I did. And as I was part of global marketing, our teams relied on each other for a variety of things. At times they took advantage of my inexperience, or even threw me under the bus when they had business downturns. But I wouldn’t change any of it! Through these challenging times, I grew tremendously. As part of that, I took advantage of a strong mentor from whom I could learn much. The skills I gained through working with him were of huge benefit then and later on, and opened new opportunities to me. They also taught me a lot about product development, project management, and so many other areas to which I wasn’t being exposed in my former R&D life.

Big gains come from aggressively pursuing and creating opportunities

By now you are hopefully understanding that a central element of my career leveling up strategy was a willingness to seek out work that would help me grow. Equally important to my aims of financial independence was increasing my responsibility level and therefore my income. To do this full, I feel you must be comfortable embracing change and be willing to take risks! Paraphrasing a comment in the video, I was rarely risk averse about work, because I’ve always felt that things would turn out well in the end so long as I worked hard and built up a good reputation. If a new role or company turned out not to be all I’d expected, I was willing to move on. Nothing is permanent and you can recover from temporary setbacks. I don’t mean to say I was unequivocally optimistic! I weighed the risks, considered my options, and went for things that I felt fit my aims.

I left what I would term “sure things” twice in my career, departing good roles at stable, respected, well-performing companies, to join start-ups. I could have spent the entirety of my career at either, as many people do. The benefits were great and they really took care of their employees. They were also admittedly kind of boring and I felt, pretty limited or at least programmatic in terms of career progression. In one of these companies, I was honored to be presented with a path through their talent management program, and the leadership roles for which I’d be eligible. I chose to leave that behind to join a scrappy startup down the road. Not only did that move eventually produce some nice income from stock options, I leveled up my skills hugely in the next five years there, along with my salary and title. Yes, I had to take a big risk to make this happen! In fact, that was my third start-up and the first that actually succeeded in any commercial sense. So it’s not like I had a lot of confidence it would pay off financially. But I was sure that I would learn a ton as I had from the others, and I could likely level up my salary and titles quickly as the company grew. This all came to pass! In my experience, start-ups are a great environment for learning, given the pace and there often being too few hands to get the work done.

Chasing opportunities isn’t all upside. At times, they can mean taking difficult decisions – moving away from family and friends, for example. I was once at a management offsite meeting when news emerged that a company leader was moving to a new role. My boss asked me: “Are you interested in his old job? If so, you should move quickly and throw your hat in the ring.” Did I want that? I really liked my current job and my team. Any hesitation soon passed. In a moment of clarity I realized I had an opportunity to negotiate something big. I was based in Connecticut at the time – far from a biotech mecca, and wanted to get to California eventually. Job opportunities were (and still are) so much more numerous there. It is also a highly competitive market! If I could get the company to move me there, it would be a big step in my leveling up strategy. I ducked out from cocktail hour to call my wife Lorri, who was supportive. We agreed it would be difficult to move away from so many people we cared about, but we knew we could always move back. So I told my boss plainly (after another martini for courage), “I’ll do it but I want X title, Y salary, and a paid move to CA”. He said he’d back me, and without hesitation walked over to the President of the corporation. He came back a few minutes later and told me they would go for it! Just like that, it was decided.

Seizing this opportunity by acting promptly and decisively – just as in other moments in my career, would allow me to level up my career, enabling so many things for my family as a result. Taking this position led me to the last few role changes in my career, along with big steps up in responsibility and my compensation. It absolutely accelerated my aims to retire early not to mention set my family on to the next exciting chapter in our lives. Admittedly it’s kind of crazy to me when I review these things in hindsight. Such a small moment in time, when managed properly, can lead to truly big things down the road! Why was I confident in being so bold? Quite honestly, I felt that I had little to lose. What’s the worst that could have happened? They’d say no, right? My hope is that in sharing this story and the other anecdotes with you, it might inspire some exciting change of your own. I’d love to hear about your experiences!

3 Replies to “Leveling up your career and your income – a key strategy!”

  1. You are my idol, seriously. Thanks for sharing some of your secret sauce. I learn from you with every encounter that may seem small. Please keep writing!

    1. Aw, you are too kind! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it. My hope is just that: that I can share my experiences and have them inform, assist, and support people in their own journeys. We each travel our own paths through life and no two are the same. But there is so much we can take in from the experiences of others and apply it in our own ways! Thanks again for reading! I really appreciate it. Best wishes to you in all that you do.

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