Ambition versus “Stay in Position”

Over the years I have mentored many ambitious retail executives (or executive wannabe’s.)  They have turned to me for advise on advancing their education, relocating their families for career advancement and help in evaluating “buy out” packages.  I have come to learn that there is no right answer to give someone.  Decisions are almost always about aligning values and priorities with options.  Personally, I LOVE choices.  When I have a choice, I have freedom and self-determination.  For some people, a choice is a highly stressful situation and their aversion to risk is so great that all options seem filled with downside.

Now anyone who knows me or has known a person who starts their own company, probably already knows that I am a risk taker.  There is one thing I think risk-takers have in common – and it is not the thrill of the risk or even the optimism of new beginnings.  Risk Takers have confidence that even if the choice is the wrong one, they will be OK.  Risk-takers, then, are confident and self-reliant. Usually.

So why would an ambitious, risk-taker ever select to “stay in position” rather than stretch for that next thing?  To develop skills, to mature, to get “good at your job.”  It is one caution I give to nearly all mentees who seek my counsel.  There is a balance between acquiring new skills and experiences and honing skills to build deep expertise.  I know far too many jack of all trades who are, in fact, a master of none.  As they scurried from inventory planner to buyer to supply chain director to DVP they never stayed in one position long enough to get very good at it.  They never anniversaried their own numbers.  That is an absolute requirement for getting good at a job.  It is one thing to outperform the last guy who had the job.  It is quite another to outperform your previous self.

Certainly the economy has helped put the brakes on the revolving door I have seen at several retailers (including a certain red bullseye here in town) where staying in position for more than 18 months indicated career stagnation and a sign to move to another company.  For ambitious career climbers, putting in three years or more at the same position may be the smartest way to move ahead.  Years in position can prepare executives to think more deeply about issues and optimize limited resources more effectively than bouncing from assignment to assignment.  Living with past mistakes is a far more effective teacher than warnings can ever be.

So before you reach for that next role, ask yourself if you have extracted all you can from your current role.  Importantly, ask yourself if you have left the position, the department and the function in a better position than when you took over.  If the work is getting more difficult or if you are doing something you have done before, maybe you are just starting to grow and contribute.   My counsel: make a wise choice.

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