Don’t ask “what seat”


KNOW is now at a place where we are setting up a hiring “machine” of sorts. Meaning we’re not hiring for 1 person here and there, but we’re trying to hire 5–10 people over the next few months and if our trajectory continues to grow, that hiring pace will only increase.

During this process of interviewing a number of candidates one of the questions I always find a bit annoying is “what is the scope of my role?” (or some variants of that).

Today I came across a HBS graduation speech by Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) where she narrates a story about her meeting with Eric Schmidt (ex-CEO of Google) while trying to decide which company she should join (early in her career). This is, I think, the perfect career advice out there in reply to the “role” question, esp. for anyone looking to work in a startup.

After a while I had a few offers and I had to make a decision, so what did I do? I am MBA trained, so I made a spreadsheet. I listed my jobs in the columns and my criteria in the rows, and compared the companies and the missions and the roles. One of the jobs on that sheet was to become Google’s first business unit general manager, which sounds good now, but at the time no one thought consumer internet companies could ever make money. I was not sure there was actually a job there at all. Google had no business units, so what was there to generally manage? And the job was several levels lower than jobs I was being offered at other companies.

So I sat down with Eric Schmidt, who had just become the CEO, and I showed him the spread sheet and I said, this job meets none of my criteria. He put his hand on my spreadsheet and he looked at me and said, Don’t be an idiot. Excellent career advice. And then he said, Get on a rocket ship. When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in. If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.


Now, I’ll be the first to admit, we’re by no means a rocket ship like Google. Not even close. But the thing for outstanding smart candidates to realize is that:

(a) it’s super hard for companies to find talent like them and no CEO would want to lose you because you’re not happy with what you’re doing
(b) if they are kicking ass and taking names, they will get to do whatever they want to do given that there are literally an infinite number of problems to solve and
(c) as the company grows, point b will only get better and better — not only the scope, but their responsibilities will also grow significantly

I think people pay way too much attention to the title, or narrow definition of their role and forget that at a young startup there is still a tremendously large number of things to do outside of whatever narrow role definition the JD might have. At McKinsey my mentors always used to say “don’t worry about the content/topic of the project, focus on the people you’ll be working with” — that’s where all the learning came from and also what determined the quality of your work life. It was hard to follow that advice because who wouldn’t want to work on a super exciting topic, but every time I did I realized how true it was. This “don’t ask which seat, but pick the right company, and the right people to work with” feels like similar advice.

I’m not saying if you’re interested in being a content marketeer take an operations only role. But beyond a certain point, do not worry too much about the specifics of the JD. Pay more attention to the people, and the company. The role will morph itself for the right person.

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Founder. Strategy Consultant. Aspiring writer. All views are my own personal opinions and not of any organization I'm affiliated with.