How to Get Ahead by Going Backward

Source:WSJ.com Author:William J. White Date:03/25/14 Click:

When it comes to advancing a career, sometimes the best way to take a step forward is to take a step back.

For most people, a promotion is the cure for a stagnating career. They've accomplished and learned all they can at one job, so they aim for the next one up the ladder, hoping it will bring them bigger personal and financial rewards.

But a few pursue a much riskier strategy. Instead of trying to move up, they take a lower-level job that gives them valuable new skills and experience. They're prepared to accept a short-term loss of income and prestige, betting that the knowledge they gain will lead to a better job down the road.

To figure out the best way to move ahead by moving backward, we interviewed successful executives who have made contrarian career moves. A few common themes emerged in their stories. For one, the executives said they knew exactly what they were getting into when they took backward steps. They knew what skills they were seeking in the new job, and since they had a broader career plan in mind, they were prepared to accept lower pay or a diminished profile to achieve it.

Moreover, they were pursuing a goal they felt passionate about; they weren't running away from problems or dissatisfaction at a current job. Their backtracks were also grounded in success in one venture, which provided confidence and often a financial cushion to pursue an interest elsewhere. Finally, with a secure cushion, they were confident enough to take a backward step at any stage of their career -- even on the cusp of retirement.

Of course, this strategy is not for everyone, nor does it automatically lead to the proverbial greener grass. But for people willing to plan their career several steps ahead, and take some risks to achieve a goal, it can be a rewarding strategy.

Here's a closer look at the lessons we gleaned.

Understand what skill gap you are trying to fill.
Successful career transitions are grounded in the desire to gain a new skill or experience in a different part of a company -- for instance, moving from finance to operations -- or in a different industry. Those who navigated the change successfully knew exactly what they were looking to acquire by making the move.

Alan J. Lacy, who among other things is a senior adviser to a private-equity firm, recalls a strategic career move he made in the late 1980s. Mr. Lacy made a "development move" from the treasurer's job at Dart & Kraft -- now Kraft Foods Inc. -- to a divisional finance job. After being a corporate officer for three years, he realized that the treasurer position tended to be a lifelong job; the person he succeeded had held the title for more than 20 years.

Still in his 30s, Mr. Lacy wasn't ready to commit to the job for the rest of his career. So he decided to get some hands-on experience in operational finance, as well as international exposure, at Kraft's overseas arm. His goal: to become the chief financial officer of a public company.

"One of the things I've counseled people on over the years is when you make a couple of lateral moves and take jobs that might even be perceived as a demotion in the early part of your career, you are building breadth," Mr. Lacy says. "You have to have depth, whether in marketing, finance or operations, but you should also try to build as much breadth as you can."

The move paid off. Mr. Lacy became CFO of a public company at age 35, and became CFO of Sears, Roebuck & Co. at age 41.

He later made a similar decision: He decided he didn't want to be a CFO for the rest of his career, so he left the job to run Sears's credit business in 1997. Once again, the development move paid off: In 2000, he was named chief executive of Sears.

Run toward something positive rather than away from something negative.
A backward career move is not an escape plan to pursue fantasies: quitting the 9-to-5 job for a cabin in the woods to write poetry or trading in one's wingtips for hiking boots. Nor does it involve running away from responsibilities, personal problems and unfinished business -- moves that are steeped in failure and destine an individual to encounter the same challenges again, just in a different environment.

Instead, the shift should be rooted in a strong desire to take on the job in question -- such as rediscovering a passion or building professional breadth in order to achieve a dearly held goal.

For Thomas Ryder, the passion came from a sense of obligation to help his company and his peers. The retired chairman and chief executive officer of Reader's Digest Association Inc., Mr. Ryder was a member of the senior management committee at American Express Co. until about 1990, managing noncore businesses.

"The joke was that I was in charge of 'other,' as in other businesses," he recalls. "Then one day a new boss came in, who told us we were going back to our core business and core competency. When he gave that speech, it occurred to me that 'other' was out of business, and it was indeed."

Mr. Ryder could have jumped to another company or marketed himself aggressively to the company's core businesses. Instead, he decided to take on the challenge of selling the noncore businesses -- even though it meant leaving the executive committee and taking a psychological demotion. In spite of an uncertain outcome, he did not run away: not from the difficult tasks ahead nor from the responsibilities he faced.

His sense of responsibility to his subordinates and superiors, as well as the opportunity to gain valuable experience in the tougher side of operations -- liquidating businesses -- was a backward step that paid off in the short and long term.

"In the process of what I did, I earned an extra measure of respect from my new bosses," Mr. Ryder says. "It wasn't too long before they invited me back to take on a much bigger job -- one of the biggest and most important jobs at the company at that time." The new assignment: president of Establishment Services Worldwide, the division that dealt with all the merchants who accepted the American Express card.

Embrace the intrinsic rewards
Executives who made abrupt departures from their career paths were willing to accept pay cuts and less prestige. They recognized that the temporary losses were less important than the intrinsic rewards of the new challenge -- such as learning skills or fulfilling a long-held dream.

It's crucial to bear those intrinsic rewards in mind in the face of incredulity from peers. Consider Mr. Lacy. When he took his strategic step, fellow executives "were shaking their heads," he says. "They didn't understand why I would do that."

Although he didn't suffer a loss of salary, "from a status standpoint, it was a huge shift," he says. "I had been a corporate officer, going to board meetings and being in charge of the finance committee. Treasury departments also have relationships with people outside the company, including partners at investment-banking firms.... Then I went into this very internal job, where the only external relationships would probably be with the auditor."

The thing to remember is that "a backward step is in the eye of the beholder," says Jon Fieldman, chief operating officer and general counsel of Crestview Capital Partners, a hedge fund. Mr. Fieldman has made several career transitions, seeking out jobs that could help him develop skills such as teamwork and transforming organizations. Along the way, for instance, he left a large and prestigious Chicago law firm and eventually became chief information officer of a Xerox subsidiary. His goal in making the moves, he says, was "to grow and stretch as a leader so that I develop my gifts, improve upon my weaknesses and contribute to the world as best as I can."

Have a safety net
Success begets success. Having achieved goals, found recognition and enjoyed the rewards of their successes in one area, executives were able to handle the psychological challenge of backward moves.

Indeed, many of the executives interviewed made more than one backward move in their careers; the success of previous tactical shifts gave them confidence and experience for future moves.

Building on previous successes may also provide another type of safety net, at least temporarily: a financial cushion to make up for the loss of salary or bonus.

Don't move for emotional reasons
Counterdirectional moves may carry emotional rewards, but they shouldn't be emotionally driven. Sudden, radical changes that are driven by anger -- at a boss, a company, the loss of a promotion, because of a merger, and so forth -- or other negative catalysts rarely result in well-founded, successful change. Usually, people making a successful decisive move have put a lot of time into evaluating their next career steps -- which allows them to capitalize on opportunities.

It's never too late to transition
Most of the executives spoke of having made one or two backward moves early or mid-career. From the late 20s through early 40s, it may be easier (and more acceptable) to switch career gears and make contrarian moves. But transitions can be made at virtually any career phase -- as long as one has sufficient psychological and financial cushions.

After a lifetime in publishing, Larry Kirshbaum wanted to make a move before he retired as CEO of Warner Books. In 2005, at age 61, after enjoying a record year for his division, he left to become a literary agent, pursuing his lifelong love of books and working with authors.

This premeditated backward move brought a dramatic step down in salary for a former corporate officer and head of a business that last year was acquired for more than $500 million, as well as a decline in prestige. Mr. Kirshbaum believes such moves are better made sooner rather than later -- but the timing doesn't matter as much as your attitude.

"If you have a strong predilection for entrepreneurship, exercise it as early as you can," he says. "Build something up with more time. You won't be taking as much of a financial jolt as I have. But it seems to me that if anyone today feels the way I do at the age of 60, which is as if I were 30, then the timing doesn't matter. It's a state of mind."

Part of the state of mind is what Mr. Kirshbaum describes as the "fertile void," literally a space of time and attention that is purposefully left vacant -- rather than being crammed full of obligations and responsibilities.

"If you don't fill up all the time and space around you, and you leave some open time, the void will be filled with very interesting things you haven't anticipated," he says. "Out of the blue have come some wonderful opportunities that would never have occurred to me...if I had not gone out on my own and opened myself to a more freewheeling situation."

Those new opportunities include moving into private equity as a board member of a wholesale book distributor, expanding his charitable activities, and representing a range of interesting and successful books. Moreover, after representing a cardiologist's diet book, Mr. Kirshbaum says he has "stopped eating junk food, lost 12 pounds and started working with a personal trainer three days a week. I feel better, and I look healthier."

In conclusion, a caveat. The element of risk and the possibility of failure in this strategy can't be understated. There is no guarantee that if you make a backward move, you will automatically propel yourself forward on a different track. Ultimately, only you can judge your ability to handle the emotional upheaval, and the risks involved in making a bold step off the career path.

The stories from these executives are peppered with the phrases I wondered, I had a feeling, I thought. They were really comfortable with their own psyches because they knew what worked for them.

With that knowledge, they boldly but strategically stepped off the career path laid out for them and blazed their own trails.
Copyrighted, Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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