One of the business strategies to emerge recently is ‘Blue Ocean’. It says that the ocean is blue in parts where there is little or no competition for resources. In other parts of the ocean where there is more competition, fighting over resources and the blood spilled there turns the ocean red. Blue ocean strategy has been extensively applied to business. I have learned that it applies as much, if not more, to your career.
Last summer, I had just finished University and was at a crossroads.
Head was saying you’d be stupid not to take that strategy consulting job. Besides, you’ve already signed the contract – and just look at that bottle of champagne with a nice welcome note that your future colleagues sent you. A taste of things to come.
Heart, on the other hand, wanted to take a job that was part of a placement that promised working with senior management, to learn directly from them how to run a business.
Choosing Heart also meant jumping into something that had no clear progression or exit route, had an unknown value on my CV and I’d barely be paid enough to live in London.
I chose Heart, and with the benefit of 9 months of hindsight I am glad that I did.
The reason I am sharing my thoughts on the decision and its outcome is to encourage you to consider the path less travelled. I have learned that it could potentially be a much better start to your career.
A lot of final year students at top colleges/universities/schools aim to secure a job with a bulge bracket investment bank, magic circle law firm, or top consultancy. The draw is easy to understand: you know what the ‘stamp’ of working at one of these companies will add to your CV, you know where you can get if you work hard and play your cards right, and you know that many of the deals you work on will find their way to the front of the business pages. You also get paid a decent (but not amazing, given the hours you will work) salary while you are at it. For me, this would also have meant starting to build up the air miles (something I’d always looked forward to).
“This is a no-brainer” said Head.
Heart on the other hand, preferred being on an entrepreneurial placement (my aim is to start up a business), having more time to experiment with business ideas, and regularly meeting with other recent grads that share the goal of starting up on their own.
I chose Heart, and found myself working at a company where I was one of only a handful of recent graduates. Undoubtedly, this was the blue ocean.
The advantage of this is that when the need arises for someone who understands enough about the business, yet is young enough to do support work, I am one of the few people that fits the bill.
Granted, this meant frequently doing work that I really didn’t like, such as preparing agendas, taking notes in meetings or doing basic Excel tasks - but that would have been the same even if I’d taken the job in consulting.
It also meant that I had the opportunity to work with the Head of Corporate Finance for a 7,000-person company (and was able to ask him a lot of questions). One of the provisos of agreeing to do this support work was that I would also get exposure to the bigger picture stuff, such as being in meetings and calls with investors, seeing how the CEO and CFO handled questions and so on.
The past 9 months have also involved going to and doing market analyses of some interesting places that I doubt senior management have time/desire to visit (the opportunity is, on paper, too small for them to spend time on). In the process, I have learned a hell of a lot and been entrusted with a lot of responsibility. Moreover, I have had the chance to observe how the Founder-Chairman of this company pitched it to various government officials and heads of business. I’ve heard his story so many times now that I could deliver it impromptu.
These are the kinds of opportunities that you don’t get as a recent grad in a professional services firm (the red ocean) because A) when they arise, there is too much competition from other grads who are a few years older and therefore higher up on the pecking order, and B) typically, these kinds of opportunities are only offered to those working in the business, not to external advisors at professional services firms.
And this is the reason I encourage you to make your own career path in the blue ocean. It’s much riskier and relatively unknown, but you have the potential to learn so much more than in the red, where so many others are competing for a small number of truly amazing opportunities.
To reduce the risks that come with the relative unknown of the blue ocean, you need to be as sure as you can ex-ante that you’ll be working with people you can learn a lot from and who will take you under their wing, help you understand things when you need it and patiently (within limits) satisfy your curiousity. Meeting the people you will be working with before taking any opportunity will be one of the best ways you can tell if the opportunity will live up to expectations.
I admit that I have been very lucky that this job was part of a structured placement – otherwise my fixation on competing in the red ocean would have led me on a completely different path. That said, I am confident that if you make an effort to explore the relative unknowns of the blue ocean, you could be pleasantly surprised.
All of the above comes with a warning. I write this barely a year after I was at the crossroads. I won’t know with certainty for another few years, and the benefit of even more hindsight, if this was indeed the right decision. What is certain is that I won’t regret not diving into the blue ocean when the opportunity came up – and I don’t think you will either. Give it a go.