Last week, Sarah, a fellow Wharton classmate, asked me this question: “How do I find my next career opportunity if I am a generalist? Do I need to figure out what function I want to specialize in first?.” Here is the background of Sarah’s story.
Sarah loves working with people and she has worked in a varieties of roles leading many teams from marketing, HR, to project management and operations in the last 15 years. Now she is wondering whether she is focused enough to keep progressing in the current company and how to find the next career opportunity.
Sarah told me over lunch the following (paraphrased) “I feel limited in my current role. I don’t think there is a clear career path upwards. I want to still stay in the company but find a new role that I love. The problem is I don’t know what I want to focus on. I know I am excellent at leading teams and solving tough business issues. That feels too vague to start talking to folks in the company about my next role. My questions are how do I network within my company to find my next role? Do I need to decide on a function first, like product management, before I start networking?”
As we were talking, I decided to record my response to her so it can also help other readers in similar situations. Listen to this 4 min coaching I provided for Sarah on how to network to find your next career opportunity as a generalist with a lot of broad skill sets?
Your Comments: Did this help you learn another way to network? How do you position yourself in networking when you have been a generalist in your career? Leave your comment below and let’s have a discussion.
You can also read the audio transcription below.
Lei: Just because you don’t have a focus of the exact function you want, it’s ok. Because you love to work with people you like, you can instead focus your networking on that. I think a lot of us are very culturally sensitive to environments that are good for us or not good for us.
For your current company, all you really can do is change it around. Don’t make it like, I have to find a function and then I’ll go sell it. That would be a hard push and you gotta convince yourself first and then convince them. Then you’ve gotta make sure that you’ve got the right skills. Do it the opposite way! Go and find people you would like to work with.
Every company has microcultures. Go find the microculture that supports your success or supports peoples’ success. And then go talk to them and find out what issues they’re facing, and then brainstorm how you can help. So instead of you say a lot of things and say, is there a good fit? That puts the onus on them.
If you go out there and say, hey, I want to find out about your department, what you’re doing, what are your challenges? What are your objectives? I just want to network a little bit. Don’t even worry about necessarily moving to their department, but just listen. And what you want to listen for is, what are some things that they are struggling in fixing right now? And they may tell you stuff like – It’s cross functional coordination, that we don’t have a group and da da da da da. They can tell you, and you want to get to the level that will tell you those kind of things, but through a personal relationship.
Because then when you listen for that, you can brainstorm a tailored solution of how you can fit. Because then you don’t have to sell them anything. You said instead, hey, I heard this. Here are two ideas of that can help. And sometimes it might be you. Sometimes maybe not.
Sarah:Somebody else, or something else.
Lei: Just like you propose to other people, hey, I see a gap. Here’s how you plug it. And guess what? The first thing they think, ah, maybe she should be the one to help me. It’s natural, right?
Lei: I think go with a, how can I help you solve a problem that you may have, and see if you can find a few problems out there that’s interesting to solve. Then instead of brainstorming in a vacuum. What function should I be in? What function should I do? How do I sell it? There are problems that exist today. If you can find something that you love, that you think you can help with, and they don’t have a good idea or they are struggling still, then you have a case.
Sarah: That is brilliant. That is brilliant, because I have been boxing myself into, what is the function? What do I do? What is that role? What is subject matter expertise. I’m kind of putting it backwards versus trying to figure it out.
Lei: You know, many people do. Many people do. And I think that the folks that have a focus and know they’re only marketing folks, or they’re product management. Yes, they know it already. That’s all they do. But I think there’s an advantage of having more broader skills than one function, and instead of making that advantage your weakness, this approach will make that your strength. Because then you’re listening for the business problem. We’re there to solve using people leading teams, coordinating across and coming up with a program that they may have never thought of.
Sarah: I love it. The way you actually just said, leading teams, coordinating across functions. These are core strengths that I have…
Lei: I know you have it. I know you have it.
Sarah: But the way you phrased it, versus logistician.
Lei: [laugh] Certain terms definitely trigger certain reputation. You don’t want to use the term support, logistics. They do sound very, manually.
Lei: And manually support staff intensive, right? And, that’s a whole different conversation about how to build your reputation, but I think that’s a way for people like us who have a lot of different skill sets, who actually probably just prefer to work with people that empowers them. But don’t have a, and make it a strength that you don’t have a particular, I have to be a product manager. I have to be this or not. And then you actually open up yourself to more than one opportunity potentially.
Sarah: I love that. Thank you so much!
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