Can You Work in a Start-up?

The idea of working for a start-up tends to be glamorized in the media.  Candidates need to carefully consider if they have what it takes to survive and thrive in this unique environment.

 Changing Priorities

You may be working on a mission-critical project when something changes and you are asked to stop and take on a completely different project.  If you are energized by that you could do well in the start-up environment but if that causes you significant frustration you may want to steer clear.  Priorities change frequently in the early stages.  An investor may have an urgent need that trumps whatever you were working on.  Based on focus group feedback your presentation to the board tomorrow may have to be completely revamped.  Change is a given in a start-up operation.  Candidates need to honestly assess their comfort level with constant change.

Limited Resources

In a start-up employees often have to wear multiple hats.  There are not unlimited resources or highly specialized roles, you may be asked to do whatever is most needed at the moment.  Some candidates thrive on that variety but others need a more predictable and focused work plan.  Think about how you do your best work to determine if the variety is a positive or a negative for you.

Comfort with Risk

A start- up come with inherent risk.   Not all start-ups succeed.  Brilliant ideas for new products or services don’t always predict a successful new business venture.  Can you live with the risk of the company going out of business?  On a more daily basis can you tolerate the risk of trying something that may not work?  If you try and fail, do you learn something and eagerly explore the next option to see if that will work?  Sometimes the risk is that you have to make a significant decision on your own, in the moment and then have to live with the consequences.

Believe in the Mission

Working to make a start-up successful is hard work which can be both rewarding and frustrating.  To commit to working this hard to make it a success, it is important to believe in the mission.  If you are not aligned with the mission it is likely not going to be a good fit for you.  You can’t convince others of the value of your product or service if you don’t truly believe it yourself.

See the Impact of Your Work

In a start-up you are able to see the direct impact of your work on the success of each initiative and on the company as a whole.  If you want a clear sense of how you are impacting the outcome, this could be the perfect opportunity for you.


Lateral Moves for Advancement

Sometimes the best way to advance your career in the long-run, is to take a lateral move in the short-run.  Career advancement opportunities are frequently offered to those who have a broad base of knowledge within the company or industry and who have developed a critical skill set.  Companies are looking for leaders who understand the business — not just singular functionality.

To be successful at this level, it is important to have a strong knowledge of the business and a broad understanding of the entire organization.  While promotions are great for advancing your career, sometimes the most strategic career move is a lateral move to gain needed experience and skills that contribute toward the crucial understanding of the business and to prepare to claim a role in senior leadership.  Often exposure to operations in another country or state adds perspective but so does time spent in another functional area.  So, how does one determine if a lateral move is strategic?

To determine if a lateral move is right for you, it is important to consider your long term career goals and to honestly assess what skills and experience are critical to achieving those goals.  What specific skills and experience are valued by the organization, and what is required for the future positions you aspire to hold?  Assess your current skills and identify the gaps.  Develop a plan to fill those skills gaps in your resume.  Do your homework.  Talk to people who hold the positions you aspire to, and ask what skills and experiences they consider critical to success.  The more networking you do in your field, the deeper understanding you will garner of the criterion needed to prepare you for the future roles of your choice and that make you stand out from the competition.

If this honest analysis identifies holes in your resume, this discovery is not a drawback but rather, an opportunity presented to you that can enable you to benefit significantly from a lateral assignment which offers that needed experience.  In addition to making you better qualified for future opportunities, it also signals to management that you are committed to advancing in the organization by deepening your skill set and understanding the broader business.  Your willingness to take a lateral move to intentionally develop needed skills and experience is a clear signal to senior management that you are serious about a successful career:  you are willing to walk the walk.

When to consider a lateral move

If the lateral move provides an opportunity to build your experience, knowledge and exposure in an area that you are lacking, this could indeed be a wise investment in your future.  Consider the added value of expanding your internal network – more people will know you and what you can do.  If you are learning new things about the company and its products or services, that knowledge can be valuable to your longer term plans.  You should take advantage of the lateral opportunity if it provides valuable skills and experience required for your longer term career goals.

Assess in what functions your experience lies.  If your experience has been exclusively a particular area, you should consider a move to another functional area in order to gain valuable new perspective and insights.  Identifying what you need to move forward regarding skills and seeking opportunities that provide that learning opportunity can significantly enhance your career.  It is important to build a strong foundation of key business skills in order to move successfully into the more strategic roles.

When not to consider a lateral move

 If you are considering a lateral move because you are tired of what you are doing and want a change, it is not a strategic move.  Unless you are going to learn new things and gain additional skills and experience, staying at the same level can be a career- limiting move.  Do not accept a lateral move just for a change of pace.  You owe it to yourself to be more strategic about your career.  If your job is being eliminated and your only alternative is a lateral move, you may think about it differently but avoid the temptation to accept anything simply out of desperation.  The position needs to interest you and add value to your longer term career goals that you have identified.

What if the senior leader of the company asks you to do something specific in a different area for a defined period of time as a special favor?  This is a win-win and will groom you in the manner of thinking at the senior level.  Why?  Helping out a colleague or senior manager can benefit your career.  You may have been asked because your senior leaders want to gauge how well you perform in a different function.  This may require stepping out of your comfort zone, but part of the career path, no matter what the course, usually involves taking another perspective.  This cross-over, if you will, increases your value by exposing you to something new and different and this can set you apart from the pack.  We’ve all known individuals who may have been reluctant to work as a team – and we likely remember how it felt on the other side.  Being seen as a team player can be good for your career and it demonstrates versatility and a non-verbal way to communicate that success is often achieved by group effort.  It is not unusual for temporary, at-the-same level moves, to result in significant new opportunities down the road if all goes well.  Being open to new experiences is part of career growth.

Big Picture Exposure

Exposure to the various aspects of the business may not be enough to land in the corner office however.  There are other tenets that come into play in achieving a senior position.  Understanding and knowledge are two themes whose roads all point back to success.  The most valued functional professionals also need to understand the business so they can effectively manage their functional organization or the overall company.  All managers benefit from some understanding of marketing, sales, finance, supply chain and product management

Soft skills are important for success in leadership as well.  Managers must have the ability to communicate effectively, analyze data, persuade others when they have no authority over them, and work in cross-functional teams.  With complex issues, managers need to understand the implications of human resources, risk, technology, legal, compliance and business continuity issues.

Successful managers do not need a detailed understanding of accounting since they won’t be booking the debits and credits; however, they must be able to read a balance sheet, income and cash flow statements while understanding the impact of business decisions on the company’s finances and business decisions.  They must understand the internal financial system and be able to analyze and demonstrate knowledge of the data in the reports to help support future decisions that merit success.

When senior managers are looking to fill key strategic positions for the organization they are looking for individuals with the right skills and experience.  A combination of lateral and promotion career moves can prepare for you for the next move in your career.   Managers will also look for candidates who have demonstrated leadership skills, an ability to work projects to successful and timely completion and a track record of generating solutions to business problems.  This toolbox will help you develop as a proven senior leader over time.

Moving lateral to move up

 The decision to invest in your career by accepting a strategic lateral move to expand your knowledge and experience can be the key to longer term success.  Doing the homework – expanding your skills, helping other team members, crossing over into new territory even temporarily, and enhancing your resume are all components that will hasten your goals, short- and long-term to present yourself as a supply chain leader and stay competitive with other candidates.  These efforts, over time, can enhance your career options and your personal fulfillment.


Can I Afford to Switch Careers?

I was recently asked questions about the financial impact of switching careers.  I’ve shared the questions and responses below.

If someone wants to switch careers, how can they make sure they remain financially stable through the transition – especially if they’ll likely be making less money?

  • Don’t assume that a career change always means making less money, do your research and focus on your transferable skills, demonstrate the value you do bring
  • Most often you step sideways or slightly backward, you don’t necessarily start at the bottom
  • Have a clear understanding of your baseline expenses and what you truly have to make to live vs the discretionary spending level you may be accustomed to.  What are you willing to do without to make this work.  How much of your savings are you willing to deploy to make this happen?
  • Sometimes if this is really something you want to do you need to explore supplemental sources of income.  Can you work part-time evenings or weekends to bring in additional money.  Are you willing to make that commitment to support pursuing this dream?

What are some things they should be thinking about when it comes to their finances?

  • What are your fixed expenses and your true living expenses?
  • What discretionary spending are you willing to give up?
  • What is your absolute floor?  What is the minimum salary you can accept and survive?  You need to know this and stick to it so you know when to walk away.

How can they make sure they’ll have enough money saved up?

  • You have to fully answer the questions above to look at your expenses and potential income to determine what if anything you will need to draw from savings each month.  What are you willing to invest in this transition and for how long?
  • Can you avoid depleting your savings if you bring in supplemental earnings from a part-time job?
  • Do a very honest assessment of what your “floor” is in terms of salary and benefits.  Know what you must have to pay the bills.  Discipline yourself to not consider anything below your floor.  But taking  a cut to get into a field you desire and where you can advance may be a good investment in your future.

Does switching careers automatically mean they have to start from the bottom in their new role?

  • You may need to take a step back but you do not necessarily have to start at the bottom.
  • Focus on your transferrable skills.  If you do a lot of networking to learn what skills are required for success in your target organizations, you can really focus on selling your relevant transferrable skills.  When you are bringing something of value to the table, your offer should be higher.
  • Also consider interim steps to get you closer to your desired career path so you can maximize your value add.  You can build experience in your target field by leveraging your current experience.  For example:  I have an undergrad degree in accounting and was very successful in my accounting career.  I completed my MBA and realized my passion was marketing and managing customer relationships.  My first marketing job was with a financial software vendor who valued my accounting knowledge, my experience with financial systems and my connections in that field.  I was able to make a very significant career change without stepping backwards.  After several years there, I had the marketing experience to pursue the opportunities of my choice.
  • Identify what you bring to the employer that adds value and focus on selling those transferrable skills to avoid starting at the bottom.
  • If possible gain some experience in the new field by volunteering to do a project for a non-profit or even join their board.  Not only does it give you experience you can leverage in the transition, it also demonstrates your commitment to the change.
  • Would education make a difference?  Think about whether going back to school for a degree in the new field would propel your career forward in this new field.  Explore options for scholarships and loans to support the expense.  Consider programs that include valuable work experience in your new field.


Test Drive a New Career

Is it ever a good idea to take a temporary position instead of holding out for a full-time position?  Sometimes this provides the perfect opportunity to test drive a new career.  If you are seeking to make a significant career change but are not landing the positions you dream about because you lack the required experience, maybe a temporary position is your ticket to success.

Gain Relevant Experience – Given the opportunity to gain relevant experience in a new field or industry, go for it.  Be clear about your goals and seek every possible opportunity to gain experience and exposure.  Do the work you are assigned very well and then offer assistance with additional projects.  Demonstrate your interest and passion for the work and your willingness to do whatever needs to be done.

Network as much as Possible – It is always easier to network from inside the organization.  Meet as many people as possible for lunch or coffee to learn more about what they do in the organization, their path to their current position, critical skills for success and more.  Let people know this is work you hope to do longer term.  Learn as much as you can while you are there.

Track Your Accomplishments – You are gaining valuable experience so keep track of your accomplishments.  This will be critical in updating your resume to reflect this experience.

Become a “go to” Resource – Deliver high quality work that is accurate and on time.  Go the extra mile where ever possible do demonstrate added value.  Become the individual they turn to when something just needs to be done.  Strive to be such a valuable member of the team that they can’t imagine working without you.

Maximize Opportunities – Be open to opportunities within the organization and be flexible.  Consider extending the temporary assignment if that option is offered and you are continuing to gain valuable experience.  Do not assume that your temporary position assures you a full-time position down the road.  Demonstrate your appreciation for the opportunity and pick up on the signals so you know when you need to ramp up your external job search.

Test driving a new role or industry builds valuable transferable skills that will help you land your full-time position.  It also helps confirm you interest in working in the new field.  While taking a temporary position may feel like an off ramp on your career journey it may give you the experience to move full speed ahead.


Is it Time for a Career Change?

I was asked earlier this week for insights on how to know it is time to make a career change – either within your current organization to a new department or role or a switch to a completely new organization.  While there are many personal factors to consider, here are some key considerations to help you determine if this is the time for you to leap forward.

How do you know it is time to change careers?

  • You have trouble getting yourself out of bed in the morning and motivating yourself to go to work
  • You dread going to work, just the thought of it makes you anxious
  • You get depressed on Sunday night knowing you have to go back to work in the morning
  • You are constantly thinking that this isn’t what you want to do when you grow up
  • The thought of doing this for the rest of your working career depresses you
  • You are frustrated that you are not using certain talents and abilities or not pursuing key interests or passions
  • You have that nagging feeling in your gut that just won’t go away

Is it real or a passing phase?

  • Do some self-assessment exercises to clarify your interests and abilities
  • Get input from colleagues and friends about your strengths and your possible fit in your desired role
  • Ask your mentor for honest feedback

Learn more about the career you aspire to before making a final decision

  • Conduct informational interviews with people who are doing the job you think you want, find out what it is really like
  • Is there any opportunity to test what you think you want to do by doing it part time or in a volunteer situation while you keep your day job?
  • Identify what education or certification may be required and determine what you need to do to meet those criteria
  • If you aren’t qualified to take your dream job now, identify what you need to do to quality, what job now would lead to the job you desire?
  • What companies offer the type of job you desire? Who do you know at those companies for networking?

If you decide it is time for a change, have a plan.

  • Identify target companies and research those companies
  • Identify networking contacts within those companies
  • Conduct informational interviews with contacts in your target companies
  • Prepare your resume and cover letter to focus on your transferrable skills
  • Prepare your pitch of how you will present yourself in networking events and in interviews, explain your motivation for the change and your transferrable skills
  • Identify opportunities to gain needed training or experience while you are searching
  • Use your passion to motivate you throughout the process

We all spend too much time working to be miserable doing it.  Find work that you love and do it well but go into your career change with a specific action plan for success.


Managing Your Career Lifecycle

For most employees your career has a life cycle of its own that needs to be proactively managed to ensure that you are growing and developing throughout your career to meet your changing priorities.

Honeymoon Stage

Whether it is your first job right out of college or a new job later in your career, there is typically a honeymoon stage.  You are excited about the job and they are excited to have you but then reality sets in.  You need to learn new skills and responsibilities.  You must also build relationships with team members and other key stakeholders.  Even if you have accepted a new senior level position, you need to learn how things are done at the new company and build your relationships.  In this stage you are typically doing a lot more listening than speaking as you seek to learn and understand.

Blissful Stability Stage

In most instances, the new employee or person in the new job settles in.  They learn how things work and they begin making contributions to the organization.  They receive feedback, participate in training, take on new projects, etc. as they continue to learn and grow in the job.  It is important to keep track of key accomplishments along the way for future reference.  Relationships grow stronger during this period and responsibilities and knowledge tend to grow.  Often in this stage employees are offered opportunities to take on additional projects internally which may lead to other internal opportunities.

Complacency Stage

Some employees hit a complacency stage.  The job is no longer challenging, they are not learning new things however looking for a new job either within the company or externally is a lot of work.  Rather than stepping up the networking and updating the resume to begin a job search, they hunker in to “tough it out.”  Unfortunately they tend to become jaded about the job and the company but are not doing anything to change the situation.

Time for a Change

If it is time for a change either internally or externally, the employee must prepare for that journey.  First honestly assess why it is time for a change and what is important to you in the new role.  Is it more responsibility or maybe less?  Is it the opportunity to learn new skills or a new industry?  Honestly assess your skills and interests to build a plan.  Conduct information interviews with people doing the types of jobs you think you want to hear their perspective.  Identify the skills required.  If you decide to move forward, update your resume and have someone review it for you.  Build a target list of companies and use that to strategically guide your networking to support your search.  Of course, if you are successful you start back at the honeymoon stage.

 Does Longevity Still Matter?

I visit many companies in the course of my work and I am often surprised to find people who have been with their employers twenty years or more.  While that is no longer the norm it has certainly not disappeared.  Many people grow and change within their current organizations for extended periods of time.  On the other hand, particularly younger employees tend to move frequently.  Often the lure of more money, better benefits, an exciting new role are all reasons to motivate a quick change.

While a series of jobs on the resume is not the automatic red flag it used to be in the job search, hiring managers are still nervous if they see a candidate who can’t stay more than 18 months in the same company.  Taking on new positions within the company is seen as a positive but jumping too often and too soon can raise concerns.  For candidates with multiple jobs be sure you can tell a story of why you made each change and what you gained in experience from each successive job.

To have a successful career you need to be continually managing your career looking at what you are learning, what skills you are developing and what brings you satisfaction at work.  Your career can be successfully managed through the stages.

Is Your Employee Getting Ready to Leave the Company?

As a manager you invest significant time and energy hiring, training and developing your team.  Retention of talented staff can be a significant competitive advantage.  I was asked recently if there were clues that an employee was planning to leave or at least seriously considering making a change.  Often the manager will see clues that an employee is getting ready to leave based on their behavior.


Hard to believe in this day and age but often employees send very obvious clues to their managers and others including:


  • Sudden increase in last minute requests for vacation days or personal days – sure looks like they are interviewing
  • Sudden increase in calling in sick – maybe they don’t want to use up vacation or personal days for those interviews, if they were full of vim and vigor the day before and the day after, you can’t help but wonder if they were interviewing
  • Employees who never wear a suit or tie come to work dressed up and then have to leave early – they must really want you to know because that is so obvious


Other clues can be more subtle but if you know your employees well you are likely to pick up on these and other indications:


  • Is the employee no longer coming in early or staying late as had been their habit?
  • Is the employee suddenly resisting taking on new projects?
  • Does the employee seem less interested or motivated in the work?
  • Has the employee started complaining more about the company, the department, the colleagues or the work?
  • Is the employee suddenly taking longer breaks or more frequent breaks?  It the employee away longer at lunch than previously?
  • Are there a lot of hushed conversations taking place that stop as soon as you are nearby?


While not a guarantee that someone is already actively looking, these types of behavior changes could at least be the start of growing frustration which could lead to making a change.  If you observe these types of changes in an employee, engage them in a conversation.  Ask if everything is ok.  Share what you have observed and why you are concerned.  It could lead to a valuable conversation and could “save” an employee.  While the employee is not obligated to stay with the company, if they have been successful up to this point, it is likely worth the time to attempt to retain them and all the knowledge they have of your organization.