You believe you’re at an inflexion point in your career. You’ve been successful, you’ve taken on increasing responsibilities, you’re earning good money, and feel respected within your company and industry. You don’t have complaints per se, however you feel you’re ready for ‘what’s next’. So what is next for you? What is most important? How will you evaluate the criteria you’ve defined as being important as you discern these ‘next step’ opportunities?
As a tenured executive recruiter, I’ve shared 1000’s of conversations with seasoned professionals at varying stages and levels of their career. I always try to use my mouth and ears in proportion, and listen to where people have been, where they want to go, and learn the why behind the forward objective. In my 11 th year of executive search, I’m still perplexed by the frequency in which people – often proven senior people – talk to me about the importance and emphasis of title. “I’ve been a VP for 3 years and I want to be an SVP….”. Ok, I get it (on the surface), a bigger title equates to a bigger job which equates to career advancement. Optics are not irrelevant and who wouldn’t want a better title in general? But digging deeper, is it really the best next step in your career?
Consider the following two composite scenarios: A current VP at a 100M company reports to the CEO. The company is growing at 25% CAGR, growing profitably, and is generally perceived as an industry leader in their sector. The VP has built internal brand equity and respect with her peers and the CEO, but her scope is narrowly focused on marketing and she has very limited insight at the board level. As the company continues to scale, the VP has been told by the CEO she’s a valuable asset and in a strong position to take on increased responsibilities, compensation, and visibility. But she also knows this CEO is not going anywhere and there is only one CEO. The VP respects the CEO and has learned under him, but has been frustrated that some of the other CEO direct reports have a C in their title and she doesn’t.
In scenario two, the same VP is being actively recruited to be the President of a 10M startup that has experienced a couple pivots along with fits and spurts of growth and setbacks. This startup has prominent VC funding, they’re in a relevant tangential industry sector, and some of their competitors have validated it’s a significant growth market. The board is leading the search and the position will report to the founder/CEO who is a technology genius but not a seasoned operating CEO. The board is frustrated with the lack of revenue objectives being met for 4 straight quarters although the trajectory has been modestly improving. The board wants to align the tech focused founder/CEO with a revenue/sales/marketing oriented President. The VP does not have any personal history with the current startup leadership team nor the board, and has limited backchannel information outside of the extensive interview process. The VP is excited about the possibilities and the broader President scope but concerned about some of the unknowns.
Now these two scenarios are not at all uncommon, but what truly matters is what does that current VP want and why. Perhaps the VP can take on the President role, completely turn around the business, scale it to a 50M+ business and be the central reason for it’s 200M sale to IBM. Or maybe the 10M startup has more problems than any one person can fix and a founder that can’t get out of his own way. If the VP takes the President role and the company continues to fizzle, that is not a marketable move, it’s not advancing a career, and in hindsight will be a misstep instead of a next step. Alternatively, staying with a successful company and reporting to a flawed yet positive and successful CEO with a company on a really solid course might be best. Sometimes the grass you’re already standing on can be the greenest but it’s not always obvious until you look back at it once you’ve moved on to another pasture. Regardless of a title, it’s all about your impact and contributions to a successful company. There is nothing more marketable for a next step than working for a successful company at a strategic level. Your impact and reputation, and the impact of your company in the market will elevate your ‘next step’ possibilities much more than being called X or Y or Z in a title.
My point is this – don’t overweight title for scope and the quality of the company. Those will be absolute springboards for your career if you do it right.