Elements of A Promotion: Overcoming Obstacles

The following is an article by Gary Bonner.

Banner headlines sensationalize every twist and turn in the current economic turbulence we face in 2008. We face some fundamental problems in the financial markets and geo-political/economic oil supply production, how does this apply to your job, your ambitions and your career growth? Clear ideas and resolute determination result in leadership. You can have the right talents, have the right team and be at the right time, but discover you are not at the right place. You may find your efforts blocked by a management that isn’t keen with fresh new ideas or one that is simply resistant to change.

To illustrate, let’s look back at the last period of economic turbulence, one that occurred in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and a leader who emerged to make a significant impact in our economy.

Mr. Lee Iacocca

Lee IacoccaLee Iacocca was a talented man who put together a team that revolutionized the auto industry with the introduction of the Mustang in 1964. He was at the right place, the right time, with the right group, and dazzled the market with the right talents. The group developed the “K” cars that would transform Ford’s product line from the big gas guzzling “land yachts” of the 70’s to the more fuel efficient and smaller styles we see today. Iacocca laid the ground work for generations of autos that now include hybrid fuel and alternative fuel solutions.

But Iacocca ran into one roadblock: Henry Ford II. Ford was very self-centered top-down executive who saw Iaccoca and his ideas as a threat to Ford’s position as CEO of the company his grandfather founded. Ford didn’t want “K” cars. He liked “land yachts”. Iacocca had the right motivation. Ford did not accept it.

Iacocca’s motivation was to bring an alternative American solution to the fast rising competition from the Japanese, who were making terrific inroads into the American car market. So, when Chrysler, as it faced bankruptcy and liquidation because of its unappealing fleet and stodgy approach to the market, recruited Iacocca, he left. They welcomed Iacocca as its new CEO and embraced his ideas wholeheartedly.

Not only did Iacocca have to transform a failing giant, he had to convince bankers to keep Chrysler afloat while he could accomplish his vision. Iacocca had to go to Congress to get government loan guarantees. He had to jawbone, the then powerful, auto unions for concessions. Finally, he raided Ford and recruited his former teams to assist in quickly re-tool Chrysler’s product line. Finally, he had to sell his new ideas to a doubtful market that was in the depths of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Iacocca was successful and was hailed as a tremendous leader and business icon.

The bottom line and the take-away for us today is that if your motivation is correct and all the other elements of a promotion are at hand, you may still be blocked from achieving your goal. By objectively analyzing the situation at your job, you can still overcome obstacles and achieve your goals. Lee Iacocca could have sat back and accepted a lesser role and enjoyed a very rich lifestyle at Ford. He chose to “risk” his security and comfort to achieve what he confidently believed was best for his market even in hard times.

The world has changed significantly since Iaccoca made his mark in the early 1980’s. Chrysler was “too big to fail” because it would have had a terrible impact on the American economy. While still a large company today, Chrysler is not a major company that would warrant special consideration by the Federal government for a “bail out”. If fact, there is discussion that General Motors may seek bankruptcy and possible dissolution because of outstanding labor contracted retiree and employee benefits that it can no longer afford. Ford and even the formerly impregnable Toyota reported plunging sales and profits for the first half of 2008.

Even as we see unemployment rising from historic lows and rumors of lay-offs, there is still opportunity in our careers. The longed for promotion at your present company may not occur, but the talents, the motivation and the determination to meet your goals will find the right place at the right time. We may not fully recognize it until we view it in 20-20 hindsight, but opportunity is always available for the industrious person.

Gary Bonner has spent the last 35 years in commercial & consumer finance, equipment leasing and factoring for 4 of the largest financial organizations world-wide. He served as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 manufacturer and also started and operated a successful small business. He graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Finance from the University of Oklahoma and now resides in San Diego, CA.


Should You Look For A New Job?

Corporate OfficesA friend recently learned that a co-worker, with similar responsibilities and credentials, found a new job for slightly more pay. The difference in salary was, percentage-wise, in the single digits and the move was a lateral one (no significant added responsibilities). She was wondering whether she should start looking for a job too because money’s getting tighter and everyone’s looking for an edge.

There’s no harm in looking.

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Best Paying Graduate Jobs: Lessons Learned

For the last three years, I’ve watched for and written about the list Yahoo releases every year for the best jobs for graduates. The 2008 best paying job for graduates was in the field of Chemical Engineering. Last year, the 2007 best paying job for graduates was Chemical Engineering. The year before that, the 2006 best paying job for graduates was Chemical Engineering. I think it’s safe to say, Chemical Engineering is here to stay. 🙂

The problem with looking at these types of lists is that if you were equally capable of doing any of the jobs on the list and if money were your primary driver, by the time you graduated, the list could change. When I started college in 1998, I was lucky. All the hot job lists had computer science, computer engineering, information systems and information technology all over the top spots. I wanted to study computer science and so the appearance high on the list for salaries merely cemented the decision. However, when I graduated in December 2001 (for all you math majors, I was done a semester early partly because of AP credits), computer science wasn’t really a hot job in too many places because of the dot-com bust.

Despite that, one thing is clear by looking at these lists year after year. Engineering is hot. While the non-engineering jobs on the list, the doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. are stable, high-pay (eventually), and high-demand, the competition for top engineering talent will always keep salaries for new graduates in those fields very high.

Chemical engineering may not always be the top paying graduate job (though it’s prospects do look good), but chances are #1 will have ‘engineering’ in there somewhere.


Try Services Before Signing A Long-Term Contract

How many times have you heard of someone signing up for a three year contract with a gym only to find out that they don’t like the gym? Or don’t have enough time to go? How many times have you heard of someone signing up for a two year contract with a cell phone only to find out that they can’t get service inside their house? As consumers, we’re savvy enough to extensively research our major purchases but are less savvy when it comes to services. We’re quick to sign a gym membership without using the services but would have difficulty buying gym equipment without trying it.

You should, whenever possible, try something out before you sign any long term contract. It won’t be possible in all cases but try whenever you can. With gyms, you can request a one or two week trial. In addition to trying the facilities, the trial weeks allow you to integrate the gym into your existing schedule. Can you really go as often as you think you can? If you can’t hit your targets during your trial weeks, is it really worth signing up for a longer term contract? You may find that paying on a per trip basis ends up being cheaper than the contract because of how often you’ll really go!

 Education, Personal Finance 

Graduate Degrees Are Outdated

Penelope Trunk recently posted seven reasons why graduate degrees are outdated that I think every young professional needs to read. Each of the seven reasons are spot on but I wanted to discuss my own experiences with two of them specifically.

2. Graduate school is no longer a ticket to play. “It used to be that you couldn’t go into business without an MBA. But recently, the only reason you need an MBA is to climb a corporate ladder.” I have two graduate degrees – a technical one in software engineering and a vaunted MBA. In the case of the software engineering degree, I pursued it because job prospects for software developers following the dot-com burst were bleak and because it never hurts to get another technical degree. The MBA? I pursued it strictly because my employer paid for it and because it was seen as another item on your resume, a “requirement” to climb that corporate ladder.

I didn’t pursue an MBA because it would teach me the skills required to fulfill a job function, because it wouldn’t, I pursued it because I knew that at some level it would be required to even be considered for some management position (even if that management position would require none of the skills taught in an MBA course… how does marketing or analyzing internal rate of return help in management?).

What’s my point about MBAs? While some companies may require them for management, you don’t actually need one to succeed at your job. Results matter and companies should promote based on results, not degrees on a wall. If you are at a place that refuses to recognize results, go somewhere that does.

4. Graduate degrees shut doors rather than open them. Penelope focuses on the financial aspects of this – the loans you are saddled with preclude you from working at certain places because you can’t afford it. I believe graduate degrees have a pigeonholing effect. When I applied to become a software developer at my last company, I had been doing embedded software development for about six months. In the interviews, the interviewers focused on the fact that I had been working in the embedded development world for “so long” and how I might not want to or even be able to do application development. Luckily they called me in so I could resolve their concerns because, based on six months of work (it appeared longer than six months because I used the same language, C, for various applications, the last of which was truly embedded development), they had pigeonholed me as an embedded software developer who was disinterested in, or incapable of, application development.

Imagine if you spent a year or two pursuing a degree in a very specific area within your field? Employers would naturally assume you have a singular focus and would only consider you for positions directly related to that field. You might have only gone after that degree because you thought it could broaden your horizons, not make it more narrow.

Lastly, I submit another reason, the eighth reason, graduate school can be outdated.
8. In many graduate programs, the bulk of the teaching is done by textbook. While in some fields this is acceptable, I found that the textbooks used in our business classes were woefully inadequate. We had marketing textbooks that appeared to have last been refreshed in the early nineties, discussing case studies of companies that no longer existing, and really teaching us little that could be applied in the real world anymore. You can learn more reading the nuggets from Seth Godin’s blog, for free, than you can get out of most marketing textbooks.

Finally, and this is unrelated to graduate degrees being outdated, is the fact that there are two things of value when it comes to graduate school and neither involves the knowledge. First, you will, hopefully, increase your network and, second, you’ll get a piece of paper. If graduate school was about the knowledge, you wouldn’t be able to take classes for free from resources like MIT OpenCourseWare and BusinessWeek Small Biz.

I hope you don’t leave here thinking I’m cynical about graduate school or an MBA, I’m not (that cynical), but it’s like what Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise) said in Cocktail to his professor after a bad grade: “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.” 🙂


Job Change: Take Vacation or Cash Out Vacation?

Vacation on the BeachWhenever you change jobs, there’s always some vacation days left over that you can either take or cash out (some employers won’t give you an option, this is for those who do have a choice). For me, the choice has often been pretty clear: take the days off. You’ll be paid for both but by taking vacation you get a few more benefits.

The only argument I can think of in favor of cashing out vacation is one where you want to start work at your new job ASAP and you’ve signed some sort of non-compete agreement with your former company. In that scenario, you would be in violation of that agreement if you worked for your new employer while still on the payroll of the former one. Outside of that scenario, unless you all can think of one, that’s the only argument for cashing out vacation. (There is one more, if you have a lot of vacation and you want to be paid in the current pay cycle rather in the next one… but that’s even rarer than the first scenario)

Here are reasons to take the vacation:

Medical Insurance

If you take the vacation days, you still get medical coverage for the time you’re on vacation. If you get paid out for those days, your medical insurance ends on your final day. This may not be a big deal if you start your new job immediately. If you want a few days off in between employers, it pays to “take vacation” and have medical coverage.

One thing I never understood was why my medical insurance expired on the last day of employment yet I continued to pay, out of payroll deductions, for medical for the entire month.

Accrued Benefits

Depending on how your benefits math is calculated, you may want to schedule your final day during the beginning of a month. At my last employer, our vacation days were accrued on a monthly basis. When I left on February 28th, I didn’t get the vacation days I had accrued for the month of February (ouch). This may be the case for the accrual of other benefits as well, such as pensions, so you might want to take a few vacation days to pull you into the next month.


If you’re a few days away from a holiday, it’s better to take the vacation and get paid for those holidays (duh). I knew someone who switched jobs around Thanksgiving. Using his vacation from his first employer, he was able to stretch is last day past Thanksgiving. He also started at his new job on the Monday before Thanksgiving. End result was that he was paid by two employers for that nice two day holiday… very clever!

One thing to be aware of is whether you signed any sort of non-compete agreement (as mentioned earlier) while you were employed with your former company. In the case of my Thanksgiving friend, there was no non-compete agreement in place (not that the first employer knew) and so he could technically be employed at the two companies simultaneously so all was okay.

There you have it, some reasons why you should take your vacation rather than taking a straight payout. Of course, this requires some delicate discussion with your HR department or your direct manager. I’ve found that people are reasonable, will appreciate some forewarning, and won’t mind you taking vacation. If your HR or your manager doesn’t seem reasonable (and everyone who has an unreasonable HR and/or manager knows they’re unreasonable), give the least amount of notice possible. It’s all business.

(Photo by Storm Crypt)

 Devil's Advocate 

Don’t Pay Your Dues

Devils Advocate Logo
This is a Devil's Advocate post.

A lot of young professionals hear this line all the time: “If you pay your dues, you will be rewarded by the company in the future.” Sometimes “paying your dues” refers to working your ass off for a few years, being a high performer, then getting rewarded with greater opportunities. That’s the good kind of “paying your dues.” The “paying your dues” I’m going to rail against today is the one where you basically work the grind, day in and day out, until you’ve been with a company long enough to be entrusted with more responsibility. That’s promotion based on tenure, not based on merit. That type of “paying your dues” is crap and here’s why you want to get out now.

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Speed Up or Shift Up: Thinking About Your Income Path

Let’s play a game, draw the X and Y axis of a graph. On the horizontal X axis, label it “age.” On the vertical Y axis, label it “total income.” Now, draw a line of what your income path and growth rate would be if you had only a high school diploma. Now draw a line of what your income path and growth rate would be if you had a bachelor’s degree. Draw one for the industry and job title you are now, then draw one for the industry and job title you want to be in next, then one fanciful/dream job. Start drawing it for all the permutations you think you are, could’ve been, or could be.

Do you get something this? (with more lines, but this illustrates the point)

Salary Growth Curve

Let’s say you’re in the green line (B) today. It will take you 6 years to make the same annual as someone who is on the purple line (C) and has worked two years. According to the lines above, it takes someone on the blue line (A) to earn as much in a year as someone who works two years in the purple line (C) or seven years in the green line (B).

What’s my point? My point is that for most young (and aggressive) employees, regular, organic growth in your salary is not going to get you to where you want to be. 3-4% raises may keep you on pace or a little ahead of inflation. Waiting for your superiors to recognize your fine work will be effective for a small percentage. The key to increasing your income is to speed up or shift you income. Either demonstrate consistent and solid performance, itemizing out accomplishments and bringing them to the attention of your superiors, or demonstrate the accumulation of valuable skills, degrees, or certifications that can justify significant merit increases. Doing a good job is mandatory, but unfortunately it’s become as much of a discriminator as a college degree (almost required for many jobs and only gets you in the door).

(Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be the blue line (A), because the blue line has a better chance of giving you more time with your family, more time with your kids, and more time with your friends than the other three – maybe :))

So, what should you be doing? The solution is to either shift your income path upwards or speed up your growth. What I discuss below isn’t meant to be treated as advice or anything like that, it’s merely my own thoughts on the matter and subject to the specifics of your situation. Please read it with that in mind, it’s designed just to get your brain juices flowing and not designed as an instruction manual.

Shifting Up Your Income Path

The key to shifting up your income path has a lot to do with education. If you don’t have a high school diploma, getting a GED will shift you up. If you have a high school diploma, a college degree will shift you up. If you have a bachelor’s degree, consider a master’s degree (hopefully with tuition reimbursement from your employer!). If you can augment your resume on the education bullets, you can negotiate higher salaries with your current or future employers.

Another key to shifting up your income stream has to do with job responsibilities. Promotions often, but not always, lead to shifts in income to keep your salary competitive with the market rates. If you’re an engineer, a promotion to a team lead should get you a raise above and beyond what you would’ve gotten if you stayed a non-technical lead. If you are promoted to a first line manager or above, you should shift to higher lines. If you aren’t, consider moving to a company that will reward you for taking leadership and management positions.

If you can’t shift (those aren’t the only two ways, but I think you see what I mean), or at least not now, try speeding it up.

Speed Up Your Income Path

A shift up is much harder than simply speeding up your path along the income lines. Whereas a shift up requires degrees or actual responsibilities, you can speed up your income line by simply increasing your value to the organization relative to your peers. If you learn new applicable skills that improve your productivity and show gains for your organization, they should reward you for it. If you don’t use Excel at all in your daily routine, going to an Excel class won’t help. If you do use Excel and can show productivity gains by going to a class, your improved performance, and your documentation of it, should lead to speeding up your income line so you get a little more than the standard raise everyone else is.

The second part, regarding performing better relative to your peers, is just as important as performing better. If you are surrounded by superstars and your department only has a set amount of money to dole out in raises, you might have to work your butt off just to keep up (it could explain why you may have a few bad raises!). If you are surrounded by a department of fools, it’ll be far easier for you to shine so you better take advantage of it. If you need ideas, it doesn’t hurt to ask around.

Build A Case

One crucial point that is applicable to both ideas is communication with your management and company leadership. I know a lot of people who, upon attaining master’s degrees, weren’t properly compensated for their efforts after the degree was awarded. Part of that was institutional (the company simply didn’t see why they should, so people went to other more enlightened firms) but part of it was communication. You have to build a case for yourself before anyone else will. Your manager has a job to do too and it’s not priority number one to ensure you get what you deserve… that’s your priority number one. So remember to build a case for yourself, don’t just assume people will recognize what you’ve done and compensate you for it.

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