Testing the Waters

contributed by Dr. Stephen E Bangert, PhD

Just recently I was invited to a neighbors house for a celebration. The week previous Dave had been named president of a $34 million manufacturer and his wife proudly threw a party for her 37 year old high achiever, now eligible for YPO.

Arriving when the party was already in high gear, I mingled in the crowd, enjoyed a drink and caught up with a few other neighbors that I hadn’t seen all summer. Later I made it to the guest of honor, congratulated him and joined in the conversation of other well-wishers. There was the usual guy talk until a colleague of Dave’s said: “how do you do it, Dave? You’ve been with the company seven years and this is your third promotion.”

I sensed both curiosity and jealousy in his question and, while Dave tried to brush off the question, the colleague pressed further. He gained support from two others as Dave suggested that he tried to create opportunities and avail himself to them. This begged further questions and soon the conversation turned serious.

Dave reflected a moment on what he had said then explain what he termed his simple philosophy. “When I joined the company it was with the desire to utilize all my talents. I knew I was a skilled engineer but also knew I needed to gain further attention and support for my career to blossom. I needed to understand the organizational structure, issues, communication flow and politics. So I continued to hone my engineering skills and worked at developing better communication skills and alliances with other managers and executives. I positioned myself for projects that were high profile and had the greatest impact on the bottom line.”

Another neighbor challenged Dave’s simple philosophy and commented that it seemed like a sophisticated formula for success. Checking his own memory the neighbor reflected: “Didn’t we have a conversation just last spring when you entertained leaving the company?”

“Good memory,” Dave quipped. “As part of creating opportunities I tested the waters last spring by working with a professional search firm, updating my resume and targeting companies within my industry to see how the marketplace might respond, and to learn what I was worth. The stars must have been aligned properly because after doing a direct mail campaign I was pursued by three companies and two “head-hunters”. Concurrent with this, the then president of the company asked me to take on a key assignment affording me the opportunity to work with the chairman of the board.”

Interrupting, another person asked: “So did you get any offers?”

“Actually I did.” Dave explained, “but the relationship I had developed with the president allowed me to discuss matters openly and was counseled there would be opportunities within the company if I could remain patient. I questioned what these might be, but the president who, unbeknown to me, was himself being recruited by a much larger company would only respond with “trust me.” I felt there was a message in his few words and made every effort to delay accepting the offer I had. Five days later my boss announced his resignation and indicated to me privately that he was recommending to the board that I succeed him. Although there were still no promises, I now trusted my instincts, and communicated to the other company that a professional matter was going to prevent me from making a final decision for another week to 10 days. I then used my working relationship with the chairman of the board to update him on the special assignment. He listened to my report, complimented me and then indicated to me that he had learned of the outside offer. In a grandfatherly way he imparted: “I think you will like the plans we have here.”

Suspense gripped the circle of friends and neighbors gathered as someone asked if he had revealed the plans. “I was dying to ask, but knew better,” Dave said adding further suspense. “However, timing is everything,” Dave continued, “and three days later the company tipped its hand.”

Dave’s wife realizing the conversation had turned far too serious for the occasion instinctively quipped: “It’s a matter of managing your career. Hone your skills, know your company, keep an eye on industry trends, keep your resume updated, test the marketplace and…” pausing for a second, but not being able to resist the temptation, she teased: “kiss up to the chairman.”

Laughter erupted as she continued: “And now it’s time for a campaign toast!”

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