Career Decisions

The Village Vanguard is one of the oldest jazz clubs in New York. A beat writer wandered into the Vanguard one afternoon in the middle of the week, to sample some of the local sounds. Surprisingly, coming out of a break, Wynton Marsalis walks out on stage and starts to play “I don’t stand a ghost of a chance with you”. At the climactic moment of the song, someones cell phone goes off. The patron with the ringing phone, very embarrassed by the episode, quickly runs out of the place. However, Wynton, ever the professional, immediately launches into an improv riff, based on that cell phone ring.

It was an interruption in a moment of glory, but the improvisation was even more special. Nothing was going to stand between Wynton and success, in that moment.

There are three traits of resilient people:

1) They confront staunch reality

2) They find meaning in what they do

3) They have the ability to improvise

Each of those were present at The Village Vanguard that day. This is the type of resiliency and flexibility that it takes to build a meaningful career.


I've had a number of discussions with people that are pondering a change in their career. While I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts and advice, I often find that I learn as much, if not more, from the discussions. Here is a framework for career decisions, that I have developed through these discussions:

a) Understand and write down your career goals. A 5-year and 10-year view are helpful as a guide. If you don't know where you are going, it is impossible to chart a course. That doesn't mean that the goals won't change/evolve, but all career decision points can use the written goals as a guidepost.

b) Never CHOOSE to take a lateral move. A lateral move is anything that does not change the scope or level of responsibility that you have. When you change roles for an increase in responsibility/scope, your career moves forward. When you take a lateral, I'd argue that you move backwards. There are situations where a lateral move is wise, because it is part of a larger career plan (i.e. skill and experience building). However, that being said, I still don't think people should CHOOSE a lateral move.

c) Careers advance when a person distinguishes themselves. Unique contributions, recognized and rewarded by an internal support group, create moments of distinction. You must decide where you have the best opportunity to distinguish yourself. Note: the environments with the most challenges often present the best opportunity to distinguish oneself.

d) Career growth in most mature companies is a product of i) your performance appraisals, ii) your executive support (i.e. are those that can promote you, personally invested in your success?) and iii) the opportunities available to you (largely dictated by a and b). You must consider where you have the best support and how confident you are in that support. To some extent, this is about managing career risk.

e) In a career, you will largely get whatever they ask for, assuming letters (c) and (d) above. This puts the responsibility on the individual to have clarity of their goals/desires and to share them...and to then be reasonably patient. This then puts the responsibility on their bosses to keep them challenged.

f) All risks that you choose to take must have clear and meaningful upside. If you can capture upside opportunity, without taking risk, even better. Don't ever let risk/reward get out of balance.

g) Don't ever make a career move for the 'promise' of a job. If you are being told to take 'job A' for now, and then you'll get 'job B' in 6-12 months, then you should assume that 'job B' will never materialize. I see many people consider this, even when they know that 'job B' is the only reason they would take the role. Yet, they don't realize that the promise of 'job B' is very different from 'job B' itself. It comes back to managing career risk. As the saying goes, 'Good judgement comes from experience, which comes from bad judgement.' Use good judgement and please don't ever take the 'promise' of a job.

h) The primary reason to take a role is to work with a great manager and a great team. Together, they determine nearly all of your happiness in a job. This means letting go of your assumptions about title and money. Making this tradeoff will pay off in surprising ways. Note: I stole this one from somewhere.


Career success is all about careful planning, unvarnished commitment, having a positive attitude and resiliency. The better you are, the more times you will face a decision point. Hopefully, this framework helps you through the decision process.