Time Working In A Company: How Short Is Too Short?

“You’ve been working there for 10 years? Wowwww!”

I recently had a chat with a group of friends and we landed on the topic of duration of service in a company. I notice that among my Gen-Y peers, there is a split in how people view long service. Some view long service as a sign of achievement in a time where Gen-Ys are seen to be less loyal than the older generation. Some view that 2-3 years is a good time to leave a company, that no company deserves your loyalty that long by which time, several aspects of your job would plateau and the organisation would gain more from you than you from the organisation. Some view 1 year is too short a stay before you leave a company while some view 1 year, at the appropriate level and access to management is sufficient to determine fit, alignment of values and growth prospects and enable you to decide to leave or stay.

In my 10 years of working, I have worked in 4 different companies. One of which, I worked only for 1 year 1 month.

My view of the matter is that it doesn’t matter how long you spend in a company. What matters is that there needs to be a strong justification as to why it is so.

When I look at my CV, there is story I am able to tell that explains every move.

Big picture, I see my career in its entirety. I see my career in blocks of one decade each, from graduating to post-retirement. Each decade has an objective and a plan. Regardless if my move from one employer to another is planned or unplanned, I’m always certain it is to fit a bigger plan.

Every move has an explanation that ties to either a learning objective in an area I’m keen to learn, an opportunity to challenge myself or simply an unexpected change in life expectation (e.g. I had to leave an amazing job in another state as I was getting married and realise I do not want to have a long distance marriage). For every move in employment I am able to explain three (3) things: what I wanted to learn; why I wanted to learn it and how I will learn it. I’m often conscious of the question, “what would a recruiter/HR person see when they see my CV?” and I realise, the Whats, Whys and Hows of my career move is sufficiently strong to play down the possible negative connotation of spending 1 plus year in a company.

But that’s if you are given an opportunity to explain yourself – what if you don’t? One of the flaws of corporate culture is we allow ourselves to assess people based on a 1-2 pager CV and we make far reaching assumptions without even meeting the person. We read a line from a CV and see a person has moved every 1-2 years and we assume, “this person is not resilient”. We see a person who graduated from a local university and we say, “this guy would not be as good as a foreign graduate”. Good recruiters, hiring managers and HR practioners should have a multi-dimensional view and should be able to assess quality of candidate not based on number of years spent in previous companies and that the decision to call a candidate for interview should not be based on assumptions derived from a CV.

So if you look at your CV and worry that your stints in companies are too short, that recruiters may think you move jobs too often, my advice would be for you to think through and rationalise an answer. Make sure you are able to explain each transition and if possible, tie it to a personal learning objective. Its fine to rationalise why you decided to leave a company too – its logical that any move would have both push and pull factors. “I decided to leave as I feel the challenge has plateaued”, “It was a bad time for the industry and in my assessment if I were to stay, I would not be able to learn much and decided to pivot and challenge myself with a new industry”. In my experience hiring people, a negative experience in a company does not make a person negative, its an opportunity for me to assess a candidate how he or she views his or her predicament, i.e. how positive that person truly is.

 

7 advice from my 10 years of working

2018 marks ten years since I joined the workforce. As I reflect on my career of ten years, it was interesting to see the effect of my decisions and the career risks I took. It was also interesting to see how my friends and peers, knowing how they were in school/university, have done things differently – and how some have achieved career success faster. These are seven things I noted, some are my own advice and some are what I observed people who had rapid success in their first decade of work do:-

1. Keep In Touch With Everyone
The working world, regardless of where you are in the world, is a mix of who you know and what you know – what differs is that in different countries, these two elements appear in different ratios. Although my career has always been based in Malaysia, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to interact with global investors to know this to be true. Information is power and you would never know who would be of help to you in the future. In this day and age of social media, keeping in touch can be easily done by dropping a birthday message on FB or wishing seasons greetings on Whatsapp. Of course, as the world is so small, keeping in touch only works if you yourself maintain a good reputation.

2. Join A Society/Club and Widen The Type of People You Socialise With
In my time doing YCM, I observed that work has this unconscious effect of narrowing the types of people you hang out with. An example of a lesser extreme would be wanting to only network with people in your industry (bankers with bankers, oil&gas with oil&gas people, etc) and a greater extreme, only wanting to network with people in your own company (where even attending external events, you herd together). To me, this limits your understanding of how other industries and how the world works in general.

My advice would be to join and be active in a society regardless of its type – may it be work related, community based society or even a political party. From my experience, joining societies provides an opportunity for you to meet people (and you learn the most surprising things from unsuspecting people) and participating in its organisation provides you an opportunity to learn useful skills in a safe environment: leading peers and depending on your society, understanding how to build brands, managing event and even fundraising. Some of the best people I’ve met were through my involvement in YCM.

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YCM hosting YBhg Dato’ Sri Nazir Razak, then CEO of CIMB as part of our Special Series
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Hosting YBhg Tan Sri Mokhzani at my cafe, Double A Cafe, as part our mentorship program

3. Keep Good Notes That You Can Refer Back
There have been a number of times where I find myself in a discussion referring to a point (either related to something I recently learnt or something I learnt from a previous employment) I knew I had noted down before but couldn’t find – either I didn’t know where it was in the same notebook or it was in a different notebook altogether (from a previous employment). My work notebooks were organised by dates and not topics so it was not easy to flip back to find the last time a particular topic was discussed. Not forgetting notes often get jumbled with To-Do lists.

While there are many ways to organise notes, I find using Microsoft OneNote effective. You can organise your content by tabs (which can be your different projects) and pages (which can be content from a particular meeting). Together with a Search function and separate To-Do checklist, its easy to keep your notes in check.

4. Have A Hard Skill. Make sure you are professionally known for something and if possible, certified.
It is not sufficient for you to just be strong in your know-who. It is important for you to be strong in your know-how. I believe one should always have a skill and be professionally known for something – corporate finance specialist, HR specialist, urban planning expert, etc. In the corporate world, you should pursue a certification – getting yourself certified is the easiest and perhaps best way to be known for a capability – CFA, PMP.

Do not mistake tenure of service in a function or an industry as indication of competence. I’ve met my share of individuals who have worked in an industry or function for a number of years but when probed, their understanding is surface level as their work is somewhat transactional. Be conscious of what you are learning daily and make sure you understand the core business of your company and read up on the latest in your industry – as an example, when asked about where oil prices will go, a HR staff should not answer “I work in HR, I don’t know what my company does or what oil & gas is about“.

5. Have an opinion
While this sounds obvious, you should, where possible, have an opinion about everything. This is easier said than done. Most outstanding individuals I’ve met are great conversationalist who are able to speak on just about anything – able to speak about national and current business issues to the serious crowd, able to speak about arts and culture when they are put with artsy folks and even able to speak about the current celebrity gossips when placed with the gossip gang.

Having an opinion requires you to be able to connect dots together and good first step is always to be diversely well read – my personal mix is The Edge Weekly, TIME and Pancaindera (those who know will know).

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Alia and I featured in Women’s Weekly as couples working together

6. Build Your Personal Branding Effectively Through Public Speaking
Most of my peers who are successful quickly in their 20s are those who excel at personal branding. In my opinion, the most effective form of building personal branding is public speaking. In a society where many are too shy to speak up, it is common, as a first impression, for one’s charisma to be quickly interpreted as a sign of competence. People who ask questions at forums, volunteer for speaking engagements (e.g. becoming MC or moderators) or speak for a cause are those who are best noticed by their peers and the public as outstanding individuals. This then leads to career opportunities.

Many Malaysians I meet don’t consider themselves as natural public speakers, regardless of language. If you’re one, my advice is to work on this skill – practice in front of a mirror, talk to yourself and be comfortable with your voice.

As a note, while public speaking is a powerful form of personal branding useful to the working world, there are other forms I have observed that could be effectively used – like passionately speaking about a cause on your social media accounts – blogs, FB, Twitter, Instagram.

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My day job: Presenting to Chief Secretary to the Government of Malaysia and other VIPs

7. Plan and Review Your Achievement
Time has an unforgiving aspect where if you don’t keep track of it, it will just pass you by and before long, 10 years would have passed. Although I don’t take new year’s resolution so strictly (like my resolution to lose weight is from 2015 and keeps getting carried forward), at the start of the year I would have a mental conversation with myself asking “what would I want to achieve this year?” and come December, “what’s my biggest achievement this year?”. I believe as you look back at your life, you should be able pick an age and recall your biggest achievement of that age – like, what’s your biggest achievement on the year you turned 25?

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Double A Cafe won Best F&B Set at the 2016 Boss Awards

What’s Your Skill?

“I’m not happy here. I’m keen to explore new job options. If you hear of any good opportunities, do let me know”

“Yeah sure. So what’s your skillsets and strengths and what are you looking for in general?”

“Right. So I’ve been in consulting for 5 years. My core strength would be strategic thinking and strategic communication. I guess in that sense, I’m a good fit at many places”

“So I take it you’re a…generalist?”

“Yeah.”

I’ve had a number of conversations such as the above. Executives having worked for a number of years and unable to pinpoint a skill. Being able to pinpoint a skill is important – in an increasingly competitive corporate setting, knowing your skill is a matter of personal branding and ensures continued relevance.

Inability to identify a skill is especially prevalent among management consultants who work across many industries who are thus unable to develop a strong competency in an industry or a function. I have also met people in industries who fall into the same trap, and oftentimes these are people who spend too long in roles dubbed “strategic planning” and “business development” (these roles are important functions of a company but if you are a new graduate in these departments, you often can’t absorb much due to lack of perspective).

I was a management consultant at a global consulting firm for 4 years before I transitioned into an industry. I observed that it is not uncommon for your peers and your management to quickly form a label of you, based on your competence. The guy who has worked in a bank for some time has a “Finance” label, the guy who has worked at site for some time has an “Operations” label, the marketing guy, “Marketing”. To senior management, your label becomes the basis to what you are being consulted. The unfortunate truth is, management consultants who transition into an industry often have “???” as a label. People may acknowledge that your paper qualification makes you one of the smartest people around but they don’t necessarily know what you are good for.

To clarify, in no way am I discounting skillsets such as strategic thinking and strategic communication. These are important aspects of problem solving and while it is true these may be your strength as a management consultant/strategic planner, oftentimes people in the industry would not want to accept that they have weak problem solving skills and it is more probable for your ideas to be discounted on the basis of industry inexperience.

I firmly believe that everyone should have a skill they can strongly associate themselves with professionally. Ask yourself this question, “professionally, what do my friends know me for?” and hopefully your answer includes a hard skill, may it be finance, urban planning or construction. Another way to do this is if you were to write your short profile on LinkedIn, what would you write about – what are your skills and what are you passionate about professionally?

If you find yourself unable to identify a skill, my advise is to identify an area of growth you would like to pursue and grow into it. Invest time and deep dive into the content. If there is a certification in the field, get certified (e.g. PMP, CFA). And in this age of social media, promote your professional personal branding – speak about the topic on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and let people know what you are professionally passionate about.

Stretch yourself and whatever your passion may be, be known as an authority in it and hopefully, more professional opportunities will present itself to you.

Special Officers – What’s So Special?

I recall a time when becoming a Special Officer (SO) was the coveted job of graduates. In student body circles such as UKEC, among others, becoming a SO to a Minister or a CEO of a big company became the aspiration of its Chairman. Student leaders in Malaysia are no different.

Becoming a Special Officer is sexy – it’s a validation that a person of power acknowledges your ability over your peers, that you are smarter, more proactive, more driven. It entails an unprecedented learning access to seasoned influential individuals and as you stand at the fringes of power, you wield for yourself a degree of influence. And with influence comes power and respect.

I myself was a Special Officer for 3 years and as I reflect on my career, these are five (5) things I observed about the Special Officer job and how it has affected my career:


1. All Special Officers Differ In Job Scopes (and Usefulness)

The title may be general but from my experience meeting other SO, all are different. Not just in who they report to (e.g. a Minister or a Corporate Person) but in what the job scope entails. If a spectrum could be drawn of their job scopes, at one end would be those who are only additional hands and feet to their bosses and at the other end, owners of unassigned portfolio. So you’ll meet some SOs who do special projects that others in the organization can’t or won’t do and you’ll meet some SOs who just simply carry bags.

2. Power is Intoxicating and Damages Your Humility

SOs are often bestowed by others the respect deserving of their boss (people treat you as if you are the Minister or CEO themselves) and over time, you will fall into the trap of telling yourself that this respect is earned, that you deserve it. People who retire from positions of power often remark how the loss of people respecting you is one of the hardest thing to adjust to. SOs who leave their job without going to something bigger or have not created a reputation beyond their job may find themselves stuck with an ego of not wanting to report to a less powerful person and simply thinking I’m too good for this.

3. It’s a Ceiling Job

For most SOs, it’s a ceiling job. Some SOs are fortunate when their organisation structures their career path that becoming SO automatically becomes a stepping stone (e.g. fast track promotion). For most however, SOs are left to figure out what to do next. The ones who are strategic are able to maximise their influence and find something better as a next step, like a Ministrial SO who gets a political position and makes a career as a politician.

SOs need to be smart to be able to have sufficient influence over their boss to be able to frankly speak to them about what’s next for them. E.g. After 2 years of working 24/7, make me a HOD or CEO somewhere. The worse ones are those who make a career being a Special Officer, deliver little and can’t transition.


4. Limited Hard Skill Growth

Yes, Malaysia is a country where who you know matters more than what you know. And the job of an SO means you get to meet people of power and influence on a daily basis. I personally believe the most effective executives (political or corporate) in Malaysia are ones who have a strong network, good access to influencers and at the same time, grounded in content and ideas. As SOs mostly coordinate, they almost never go to the level of detail that enables them to develop a hard skill. If you simply know powerful people, can open doors and coordinate between working level and your boss – what skill do you sell on your CV and what are you employable as?

The more proactive SOs are the ones who are aware of this dilemma and request for a portfolio to own and deliver, who possibly takes courses and professional qualifications (PMP, CFA) to strengthen one’s skill and are perhaps smart enough to use his influence and work on an opportunity himself, may it be for private growth and gain or for social purposes. Because at the end of the day, unless you transition to become an entrepreneur, CEO or HOD somewhere, you almost always need a hard skill to bank on.

5. Understanding How the Country (and World) Works

One of the biggest personal takeaway from my SO role is understanding how the country works – how business and politics, power and influence intertwine. Some aspects of this is disappointing to realise, like why the best ideas don’t win, but the maturity gained in understanding how things work means you know how things could and should be done. Prior to becoming a SO, I was a management consultant for 4 years, fresh out of university.

As a professional, we were good at what we do: understanding global mega trends and having efficient work ethics. But more often than not, my then colleagues and I care little about how governments work, understanding why business we consider cronies are the one’s leading the change and understanding what it takes to make a difference. We were just too engrossed making Powerpoint decks.

In general, I advise fresh graduates not to take up offers to be Special Officers. Despite the glamour and power associated with the job, joining as a fresh grad is an easy way for you to be delegated to do menial transactional work as your boss (and even you) would not know your strengths and weaknesses. One should always, where able, start with a job that provides rigour in a hard skill, work at a place that provides training and feedback. Should you be considering the offer to be an SO or if you are already one, you should think of the transferable skills that you would want to develop so you may have a clearer future after your stint.