Doing a Great Job, and Getting a Great Job

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I had coffee recently with a colleague who is looking to get into a certain market. While speaking with him, I was reminded of the irony of the job hunt, especially at senior levels.

  • To succeed at senior roles, especially in the tech sector, you need to be skilled in multiple areas: technology, finance, marketing, product, even sales. Even a mid-level engineering manager needs to know how to code, manage people (HR), handle budgets (including oddities like capitalizing vs expensing major software investments, depreciation schedules, and WACC), interface with marketing, support sales.
  • To acquire the job, you need to be focused. If you market your cross-domain skills too much, recruiters and HR departments have no idea what to do with you.

Fortunately, just about the one job where you can sell yourself with cross-domain skills at a high level is consulting. I can work with the CFO one afternoon, the customer support intern the next morning, and help the architects and engineers right after lunch. As a consultant, I am expected to have multiple skills and cross boundaries. Job-seekers, on the other hand, who need to run the gauntlet of recruiters and HR and hiring managers, need to play down their cross-domain skills until in the role.

A wise man said to me years ago that the best executive needs to have three areas of skill:

  1. Expertise in their domain - e.g. the VP R&D needs to know engineering cold.
  2. Competence in a second domain - e.g. the VP R&D should know finance or marketing or sales quite well
  3. Knowledge in all others - e.g. the VP R&D cannot claim complete ignorance of how the other areas work

This is a great rule of thumb, both for the actual knowledge required to execute, and to get the role. Focus on marketing your key area, but add secondary benefits from your high (but non-expert) level in a second area and knowledge in a third.

Today, I received confirmation of the wisdom of that path from Tony Fadell, who was SVP of the iPod division and then founded Nest. On stage during the Business Insider IGNITION 2013 conference, Fadell discussed how Tim Cook went from COO of Apple to CEO after Steve Jobs passed away. The promotion was a surprise to many watchers. Cook (a Duke Fuqua School of Business alum, like this author), deserved great credit for streamlining Apple's production process and supply chain, without which it could not have delivered its iPod and iPhone business around which Apple's massive growth centered. But a spreadsheets and supply chain guy at the heart of a visionary product company?

According to Fadell, Cook was more than "just" the COO. His expertise was in operations, he grew up - and made his name - in operations, but he supplemented it with solid knowledge of the other areas of Apple's business. He had "all-rounder experience in operations, sales and customer support."

Despite Cook lacking Jobs' flair, the numbers speak for themselves, for the years ending:

  • Sept 2010: $65BN revenue, $18BN operating profit
  • Sept 2011: $108BN revenue, $33BN operating profit
  • Sept 2012: $156BN revenue, $55BN operating profit
  • Sept 2013: $171BN revenue, $49BN operating profit

Cook has grown apple 2.6x in revenue and 2.7x in operating profit in just 3 years.

No one can sell themselves as doing everything, even if they can do much of it. Sell to get the job, execute beyond the parameters to succeed in the job.