Why Sales or Product are the smartest career choices - but only for now

Posted by Arjun Moorthy

Mar 31, 2012 5:10:00 AM

Recently our CEO Brian Halligan said during an employee gathering that there are only two jobs worth having at a company – either building the product or selling it.  The blunt statement has seemingly obvious wisdom, particularly in our tumultuous economy where jobs come and go at an alarming speed, but it left some people outside of engineering and sales feeling queasy about their career prospects. 


I’ve thought a lot about that statement - if It’s correct and if so why.  My initial reaction was that it simplified career outcomes too much and that many other functions – marketing, operations, customer service – are crucial to a company success – think P&G, Amazon and Zappos as examples of each respectively where the functions are not the core product of the company yet are well known to be part of the company’s success formula.  

However, the above are larger companies where growth has slowed, the product market fit is proven and cash flows are somewhat stable.  Indeed, at large slow-growing companies, especially Fortune 500 class, Finance is often a good career choice and you’ll see many CEOs come from the ranks of Finance versus Product or Sales.  Contrast with fast-growing young companies where the emphasis must remain on Product and Sales because you haven’t proven your market completely and are still trying to keep the money going to fund continued research and development. 

Does this mean that at small companies you should avoid functions other than Product and Sales entirely?  No but you should take these on only if their value is clearly measurable and connected to the most important metrics that the CEO sees.

First, let’s be clear - the CEO answers to the board primarily on financial metrics.  Only when these metrics are off does the board dig deeper into what’s going on.  Unfortunately that partially explains why boards like those at Enron didn’t see disaster coming because their management kept putting out great financial figures each quarter.

So the CEO cares most about financial figures but always understands at least one layer deeper what metrics drive those financials.  In the case of a recurring revenue business the CEO knows that customer attrition and upgrades and downgrades rate is one of the biggest drivers of results.  Hence, if you work in customer service or account management be sure to tie your individual efforts to these metrics.

The CEO knows that Sales are driven by leads.  Therefore, if you’re in marketing be sure to tie your value to the leads your drove, or better yet, the pipeline of leads and their related bookings, that you drove.   Indeed, modern marketers are increasingly being measured like sales people on the pipeline they generate versus (which incorporates historical or personal lead-to-sales conversion rates) rather than simply the quantity of leads and when marketers hold a quota their importance will exceed that of the sales person.

If you’re in Operations or Finance, be crystal clear on your contribution to keeping the bottom line predictable and healthy, which often means what projects you’re working on that save clear amounts of money.  HR professionals should be clear on their ability to recruit predictably and retain top talent at a cost that is appropriate.  (Incidentally, I've seldom seen this kind of accountability for Operations or HR at any company).

Indeed, surprisingly only Product is least measurable on an individual basis because of its group nature of building but I believe the days of this luxury are numbered.  Whether tracking by adoption of the feature you worked on, or the number of bugs your code produced, positive reviews from customers mentioning your feature, individuals in Product will face greater scrutiny in the coming years.

Of course such data-driven decision making has significant risks.  But one immediate point is that the onus is on managers to create metrics that highlight individual talent but not at the behest of teamwork.

Finally, the best reason for working in a measurement-driven environment is that you know if a business outcome at the CEO level was directly driven by you and you’re actually good at what you do.  This is the "high" that Sales people get at quarter-end when they are doing their best to drive a very clear and important outcome.

Knowing that you, and not some team, made something significant happen for your company gives you confidence in yourself.  Or perhaps this prompts you to make a career change if you realize you aren’t good at your role, but at least it doesn’t allow you to exist in a realm of ambiguous contribution.

Hence I suggest rephrasing Brian’s statement as such: be in a job where your contribution is clear and measurable at the executive level.  Because even beyond career safety such a role will help you determine if you’re any good at the job you’ve chosen.


PS: In large companies, at most emloyee ranks, it's hard to tie your individual efforts to top level outcomes.  Hence, I believe that it's only worth working at such companies at executives levels, or at entry levels when you are early in your career and predominently learning.  Otherwise you are always at the mercy of a capricious layoff and re-orgs at such companies.

Topics: career path, first job, career advice

Career Advice I Wish I Knew Earlier 

Hello.  I started this blog to distribute some of the best career advice I have been given over the many jobs I've had.  I've been fortunate to work for and with some great bosses like Brian Halligan, Francis DeSouzaNancy Kamei, and Rick Roberge, and some unique companies, like The Boston Consulting Group, that invest heavily in making each employee a success even after leaving the firm.

The advice and training I received here stands in contrast to my experiences with some not-so-great bosses and companies I've also worked for.  I'm continualy amazed at how valuable good advice has been in my career so I hope to pass on the good advice, and insights from mistakes I've made, via this blog. 

Thanks in advance for your comments, particularly when you can improve upon the ideas posted.

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