The Things People Miss About Career Management, Courtesy of a Wharton Management Professor

Because it’s way more than salary and titles.

Drake Baer
Jun 20, 2017 · 4 min read
Image courtesy of Wharton.

If only work were more like love — with relationships, you can at least go on a couple dates before making a long-term commitment. But even if you’re the most thorough job seeker, it’s hard to tell how well you’re going to fit in when you choose one. Like a dear friend once observed to me: “It’s weird to get your dream job,” she said during a lunch where at least one of us was going through a career change, “and then realize it kind of sucks.”

Last week I visited the University of Pennsylvania on a reporting trip, and I brought this weirdness of the career quest to one Matthew Bidwell, an associate management professor at Wharton. He researches the sorts of things that should be taught to everyone before graduating college: how the choices you make about staying in a job or looking for new ones end up affecting your career trajectory, whether in the form of promotions or pay.

Matthew Bidwell.

In a 2015 paper — cleverly titled “Shifts and Ladders: Comparing the Role of Internal and External Mobility in Managerial Careers” — he and a co-author found that among MBA grads, staying at the right company is a faster route upward than moving between companies. The external moves lead to similar pay raises, though not the same increases in responsibility. The people in this sample also reported feeling more satisfied in their careers than those who’d bounced around.

Reflecting a bit on that finding, Bidwell tells Thrive Global that it’s another indicator that opportunities flow through people — specifically people who are invested in you. “The person who’s most like to take a chance on you is a person who knows you well,” he says. “We build our careers by being allowed to take on more responsibility doing bigger jobs. Each time we do that we’re kind of asking somebody to take a chance on us.”

These people are sometimes called mentors, other times sponsors: they’re the kind souls that don’t just give you good advice, but actually go to bat for you.

If you’re going to take a job, you want to be as sure as possible that the people you’re working for are going to enable you to take on bigger projects. If you’re already at an organization you like, it’s key to cultivate relationships with people who can give you the green light on new projects. And if you’re a manager who wants to hold onto talent, you’ve got to enable people to take on bigger things.

In one sense, it’s demographics: how old are the people in the jobs above you? “If they’re 65, they may be eyeing the golf course,” he says. Same with if they’re in their late 20s or early 30s: they haven’t peaked yet, they won’t stay at that job forever. But if they’re in between, it’s unlikely seats are going to open up.

A small organization that’s not growing isn’t going to have a lot of upward mobility, and a shrinking company is obviously not a good ship to get on. The ideal is a medium to large company that’s growing, or one where all the management is retiring.

You also want to get yourself more and more plugged in. Classical management research suggests that it’s important to cultivate what researchers call “sparse networks,” or knowing lots of people who don’t necessarily know each other. “It enables you to join dots that other people can’t,” Bidwell says. “You have a finger in a lot of pies, and so you see trends before other people do, and so that kind range, that sparsity. It’s like getting to know people. I think it’s partly the reputation, it’s partly the support and it’s partly the ability to really understand what’s going on.”

Similarly, a recent network analysis of employees at a large engineering company found that the people with the most relationships with colleagues up and down the ranks and across departments landed the most patents or helped take the most products to market. So if you’re looking for a job, try to tap into a wide network, and if you’ve already got a job you like, find ways to combine forces with people outside your resident silo.

“The least responsible advice I give to my classes is, ‘You should take up smoking,’’ Bidwell jokes, since smokers gathering in front of a building tend to get to know each other, similar to how the best conversation at a party is often found on the back deck or stoop, depending on who’s hosting. It’s a shared activity that brings diverse people together. But you can also do that in a more lung-friendly way, by joining “affinity groups”: golf club, rock climbing club, happy hour club, the LGBT network — things in your community or company where like minds can meet. “A part of it is just putting yourself in situations where you’re more likely to meet and get to know people you otherwise wouldn’t,” he says.

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