By Daniel Smith
In ancient Greece, a young consultant named Asparagus was on the Partner track at a top-tier firm, and life was good. But over the years, he grew tired of simply advising on how to improve sheep breeding – it was time to get his hands dirty. He posted his CV on a few job boards at the local arenas, and tacked it to some columns as well. Within a few weeks, the calls started rolling in. Being an alpha male, he needed the job he took to be better than what anyone else in his peer group took. Most people leaving his firm at his level took Director jobs, and subconsciously Asparagus set VP as the minimum “acceptable” level. He also wanted to have ownership of a business, unlike his peers who were still in advisory roles.
A month after posting his CV, Asparagus found himself weighing two options – a Director-level staff role with a well-respected livestock business, which would pay him today’s equivalent of $200k base, 30% bonus, and $200k a year in equity. The equity had a strong track record of paying out at face value. His other option was a VP-level position with a company nobody had ever heard of, whose future was uncertain, and he would have to relocate to Atlantis to take the job. This company was willing to pay Asparagus a base salary of $245k and a percentage of the business, which nobody knew how to value. Asparagus was torn. He felt that taking the Director position would set him on a path to all that he wanted to achieve, but it didn’t feel as thrilling as the VP-level role. That VP role really popped – it had some swagger to it, put Asparagus’ fate in his hands, and had a base salary that was a solid 25% above the average salary range for his cohort.
He thought about the two offers all weekend, and his mentor, Logicus, told him that he should take the Director role. But he wanted to take the VP role, and he was sick of thinking about this. He wanted the decision to be made already, so he made it. He accepted the VP position and celebrated with a vacation that he paid for entirely with points. And he forgot to follow up with the other company, burning that bridge forever, but he was on to greener pastures and had better stuff to do than properly thank a company that had extended him a fantastic offer.
10 months later, Atlantis started sinking, and Asparagus had to abandon ship. In some ways, he felt his CV looked great – he had a VP position, had been managing a team, and he had even slowed down the sinking of the city a little bit. But when he went back to the arena and started posting his CV again, he realized that he was competing with all of the people from his cohort and the year behind. For the line roles that he really wanted, he primarily found himself competing with people from the well-regarded livestock business that he had chosen not to join. Apparently, the company’s reputation was so good that other companies only wanted former consultants who had spent time in this particular livestock business.
Asparagus didn’t get the same positive reaction to his CV that he had relished the year before, and he could only secure a few interviews. A lot of the interviews focused on “What is Atlantis, exactly? What do you guys do? What were your other options at the time, and why did you choose Atlantis? Couldn’t you tell that the company was doomed?” People were questioning his judgment and his ability to think strategically about his own career. In the end, Asparagus lost out on the positions he wanted. Companies kept hiring straight out of the consulting firms, where the candidates all had nice, clean backgrounds, rather than someone with a recent track record of poor judgment. And even though Asparagus said he was open to taking a pay cut for the right role, the HR departments at target companies were all concerned he would leave as soon as a better paying job came along. Fortunately, Asparagus was able to return to his former consulting firm at the same level that he had left at, and he focused on getting back on the fast track with some valuable lessons learned.
Two years later, Asparagus reentered the job market. He hadn’t doubled down to make Partner, because he knew he wanted to exit the firm at some point. So although he was more experienced and a little bit “grayer”, his resume was only attracting attention for the same kind of roles he had looked at three years earlier. After six months of looking, he had narrowed his options to two key roles. One was almost exactly the same as the Director offer he had received earlier, but it was with that livestock company’s main competitor. And his other offer was an SVP position with a startup in the Little Data space.
Now, what was really sweet about this startup is that Asparagus would be reporting directly to the CEO. And the CEO only had to meet Asparagus once for 30 minutes before offering him the job, so Asparagus took it as a sign that the CEO recognized his unique talents. The CEO expected a new round of funding to come through any day, and he promised to make the compensation package work for Asparagus. His base salary would be low, but he could earn up to 400% of base in bonus if the company took off. Details were murky, but Asparagus felt really good about the possible upside. And frankly, he didn’t want to be a Director at this stage in his career. He felt that SVP put him back on track and would show everyone how senior he was. He reached out to Logicus for advice, but the CEO was relentless in getting an answer on the offer. Asparagus only had one night to think about it, and he was afraid of losing the offer. So he accepted the SVP offer.
It may sound silly to hear about Asparagus deciding between livestock opportunities, Atlantis, and startups. But it sounds even sillier to hear people with top MBAs and experience at the premier consulting firms explain similar decisions with their career options. It happens all of the time. Some of the consultants we speak with sincerely apologize (yes, apologize) for the decision they are making, and even admit that they know what they are doing sounds crazy. It’s as though it is out of their control. Slow down, think strategically, be patient.
Are you Asparagus?