If I Knew Then What I Know Now

Thinking about your career path? SAC's Ed Tazzia talks about the importance of having a plan.

If I Knew Then What I Know Now

I’ve been hiring, managing or counseling marketing people for almost forty years now and I’m still amazed at how few people in our field actually manage their careers.  So the purpose of this blog is to outline some thoughts on the process of building and managing your career. 

I noticed early in my days at Procter & Gamble that there were two major groups of young brand marketers.  Those who had grown up in the business world with fathers or mothers or uncles or aunts who had achieved some substantial success and who had been able to either observe the rules of engagement OR been advised about their career development all their lives.  And those, like me, whose parents were middle managers or engineers or laborers and who were moving through the world of executive management for the very first time.  If I knew then what I know now.

The Right Schools. 

The first thing I would have recognized is that where you go to school and what you study does matter.  I went to a fine Big Ten school and graduated at the top of my class.  Did all the extracurriculars.  Started a business.  All that good stuff.  But the fact is that the right school can make a difference.  The benefits fall into three basic groups. 

  • First, the academic reputation, earned over generations of training some of the best executives in the world is truly valuable.  Being in the top of your class at Princeton or Duke or Wharton is truly more valuable than at a second tier school.  Can you succeed without it?  Certainly.  Can you improve your odds of success by attending a top tier school.  Yes.
  • Second, the school you attend impacts your credentials.  The fact is that every hire is a risk to the hiring company. They can reduce their risk by selecting people with credentials.  Attending a top tier school says something about your ability to succeed in a rigorous institution.
  • Third, the network you develop throughout your career starts with the friends and acquaintances you develop in college.  Why not develop a network that is more likely to train senior executives than middle managers?

The First Job. 

Decide what you want to be when you grow up and then do your damnedest to get hired by a company that is known for training great talent in your field.  If you want to be a marketer there are still three or four companies that do the best job of training marketers.  If you want to be a finance person, you know the firms that have the reputations for training the best finance people.  Again, can you succeed if you join another firm?  Certainly.  Can you learn more and build your credentials by working for a “training ground company”?  Absolutely.


My bias is that your first job out of school should be with a line business rather than a consulting firm.  I simply believe you develop different skills and disciplines when you are going to be held accountable for the results.  Consulting jobs are great, but I would strongly suggest that they fit best at a different point in your career development plan.

Graduate School. 

When should you attend graduate school?  MBA or some other degree?  Most of the great graduate programs won’t even let you in without some work experience.  I think they’re right.  If I could paint the perfect model, I’d get some line experience with a training ground firm and then go back to business school.  The choice of school ought to be based on your long-term goals and your interests.  Are you highly analytical?  Are you interested in finance or marketing or technology?  Are you more comfortable in a team orientation?  Do you learn better with case studies or lectures?

In any event, get into the best school you can.  See comments above.  And don’t fool yourself.  I can’t tell you the number of candidates I’ve interviewed who have told me they chose to attend XYZ State University because it was a Top Ten business school.  So far at least forty schools appear to be in the Top Ten.  Can you succeed without it?  Yep, but you can improve your odds.

Consulting, Part II. 

I think that taking a consulting job after graduate school and some solid experience with a training ground company is terrific.  But, if you are in one of the great firms, stick around until you get your Brand Manager or Marketing Manager stripe.  Leaving before that, no matter what the reason, is like getting two-thirds of your MBA.  You don’t get to use the credentials from that firm unless you get that stripe.

I truly believe that a great consulting assignment can leverage your career.  You can probably jump a level in the corporate world if you work for the right consulting firm.  As with the right schools, don’t kid yourself.  There are a handful of great consulting firms that can provide you with great training, great exposure, and great credentials.  Going to a second tier consultancy just so you can say you were a consultant is just not the same.  If you want to join one of these other firms because the job sounds great and the people are terrific, then do it.  Just don’t fool yourself that it’s the same thing as working for McKinsey or BCG or Bain or one of handful of others.

Career Planning. 

You’re going to be working for about forty years after you finish college and grad school.  So think about how you want to lay out your career just as you would think about developing any other set of skills.

Look for opportunities to build on your strengths and also improve on your weaknesses.  If you start in packaged goods, think hard about getting into another field like services or retailing or high tech.  They approach the world of business in very different ways.  The rate and pace of decisions is remarkable different.  The issues that drive their decisions are remarkably different.  Think about it.  Have a plan.

If you’re a high school student or have a high school-aged child, think about all these steps.  If you’re already in school or have started your first job, think about the next steps.  It’s not too late to improve your career odds.

If I knew then what I know now…