When I was nearing graduation from the University of Colorado with my shiny new finance degree, I thought I knew it all. In retrospect, however, I can see the huge blunders I made starting five minutes into my first on-campus job interview.
I sat down with two young consultants visiting for the day from an energy consulting company, one which to this day I believe I would have been an amazing match for my interests and skill set, and began answering their questions and responding with my own.
My dreadful mistake, which I did not know at that time, was asking about the salary range of the position. I had no idea what the job would pay, and pressed for a range when they responded “competitive,” at the advice of an adult more out-of-touch with the finance job market than me.
I made other stupid mistakes in the search for my first job, including using the phrase “see resume” on an application and focusing on the fun travel aspect of a job rather than the value I could provide to the company as a new recruit.
After my first couple of jobs and nearly half a decade of experience in banking and corporate finance, I had wised up a bit. I learned that recruiters were not all vultures, bosses were not all bad, and that who you know is much more important for serious career success than what you know.
That’s how I avoided a looming career blunder disguised behind a modest raise by being patient and telling a recruiter that she was wrong, and my value was far more than 5%-10% over my current paycheck.
Learn How to Manage a Professional Reputation
Interview blunders aside, I quickly learned a lot from my first two jobs. First, I learned that a cultural fit matters more than skill. Second, I learned that politics is just part of corporate life, and you can work hard to be the guy everyone likes or get stuck in a decades long rut. Finally, and most importantly, I learned that corporate America is not a meritocracy. A theme that would arise again and again in my career.
The American education system is great at teaching young people the knowledge they need to do a good job in a STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – career path. My time in advanced science, economics, math, and statistics classes did, in fact, help me achieve greater success in college.
Paying attention and doing well in college did make finding a job easier, and succeeding in those jobs more realistic. Doing well in undergrad helped me score well on the GMAT (though I should have paid closer attention to that perfect score on the writing section much earlier in my career), and landing in a great MBA program. Graduating there with a 3.7 GPA and a finance emphasis certainly helped me take bigger leaps as my career progressed.
But one thing college can’t teach you is maturity and corporate politics. You can learn more about moving up at a firm from Don Draper than you can from most college professors.
I learned more about how to handle myself in a work setting in my seven summers on staff at Boy Scout Camp than in school, and while working at a summer camp teaches you many lessons on self-reliance and how to handle serious and unexpected challenges, it does not teach you maturity.
At 22 years old, or 23 if you are a slacker, or 32 if you are Van Wilder, you are thrust into a new world where beer pong skills are more of a determent than an asset, particularly if your big mouth boasts about those skills to colleagues. Once I saw a fellow management trainee’s time with the company cut short by drunkenly challenging the CFO to a beer pong match at a management retreat.
While I was not that stupid, I had a lot to learn about positioning myself for success and playing the game.
Find a Source of Inspiration
I have been lucky in my career to have a few bosses that were willing to take the time and invest the energy to see their reports succeed. Some bosses are willing to help you as much as it helps them, but others genuinely want to help you succeed.
If you find someone like this in your career, learn everything you can from them, listen more than you talk, and take advice and constructive criticism to heart, while at the same time working hard to make them look good to their bosses.
That type of symbiotic relationship will advance your career much more than a perfectly prepared TPS report with the new cover sheet.
At one company, I was the young guy in an older workforce, and had several bosses and colleagues act in a mentor role and help guide me on my career path. I had guidance in navigating my way between departments and advice on thinking of my career beyond the current company.
Reading between the lines and listening to that advice, I learned that consistently providing accurate, on-time, and insightful results and projects is incredibly important to career success and building a professional reputation, but that is not everything, most notably for compensation and career advancement.
I graduated in finance at the front end of the worst economic period since the Great Depression. Due to hard work, ingenuity, and being at the right place at the right times, I had a better fate than employees of companies like Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns, but I have seen my share of mergers and acquisitions. I also graduated at a time when new finance graduates couldn’t command the same starting salaries as some contemporaries just a few years older.
I knew that if I were patient and kept working at it, I could find a job with a big pay jump. In my first corporate finance role, I received a raise that was a bigger percentage increase than my boss had ever seen, but that just told me that I moved from the bottom of one pay grade to the bottom of the next.
I finished my MBA while at that company, and assumed that if I waited long enough and worked hard enough, I could make my way to the manager level and get another big raise. However, when the news broke that my company was being bought by an industry competitor, I knew that my days there were numbered.
That was around the time I got a LinkedIn message from a friend which led to an opportunity at a neighboring company in the same industry, one which had a reputation for paying in the low end for compensation. I did get a raise around 10% with that move, but it still put me at the bottom of the average for finance folks with my education and experience.
A couple of years passed and the finance job market improved. I started getting regular calls and emails from recruiters looking to snatch me up and take me to my next job. I wasn’t going to settle with a $5,000 raise, though, and wanted to take my career, and paycheck to the next level.
Knowing When to Say No
I respectfully declined and passed on opportunities for a lateral move, but when one good looking job landed in front of me for a promotion, I took them up on the offer to talk.
First, I had a phone screening with the recruiter before having an in-person meeting about my own background and the open position. That led to an in-office interview day at the company with three different people, including the hiring manager and someone from HR.
While the recruiter painted a very rosy picture about the position, meeting with the human resources manager told me a different story. With only a 10% raise, this position did not have any realistic opportunity for promotion for the foreseeable future. If I was going to move to a new company, I was only going to move for something really, really good.
After serious deliberation, I decided the job was not a good fit for me, and I would hold out for something better. A spiteful call from the recruiter included telling me condescendingly that “while title is important to me” it didn’t matter, and that I could never get more than a 10% raise.
What a bitch!
Never let someone bully you into something as important as a job change, particularly a recruiter. Moving into a new role should be a win-win for everyone involved. Getting pushed into something that I didn’t think was the right fit was not on my career agenda.
I vowed to never work with that company again and wait it out a little longer.
When I decided to follow a dream to try somewhere new and move to Portland, I started applying for jobs and making connections with recruiters in the area.
Dozens of applications turned up nothing, but an email back from one recruiter was promising. But this time was different. Rather than using my old salary as a baseline for what I should be paid, she asked about a target salary and confirmed I was in the right range based on my value.
Focus on Value First
A phone interview with the recruiter led to a phone interview with the hiring manager. That led to a video conference interview with the hiring manager and two managers on the team.
I stuck to my guns and didn’t base my value on my current compensation. I knew what someone with my credentials earned on average, and was not going to led my old salary keep me from reaching at least that.
I knew I was at least average, and was fine not being paid in the top 10% or 25%. But I was not going to tolerate someone telling me to take something in the bottom 25%-30%.
The interview went well, and a few days later a contract came offering me a 40% raise. BOOM SHAKALAKA!
If I had listened to people who had everyone’s best interest in mind than mine, I would have been earning tens of thousands of dollars less each year. If I gave in to the recruiter bully, I would have taken a 10% raise when I knew I should get more. I was right, she was wrong, and I had the bank account to prove it.
Grow Your Compensation with Data on Your Side
Am I an arrogant, entitled Millennial who thinks he’s the bee’s knees and the best thing since sliced bread? Maybe. But I am also a well-educated finance expert with access to a thing called the Internet.
Using the same pipes that brought you this article, you can visit career development websites for information on how your compensation stacks up compared to others with the same education and experience.
I was not egomaniacal enough to think I should be the best paid financial analyst in the corporate world, but I did know based on interactions with colleagues and mentors that I was above average, and a below average salary wouldn’t suffice any longer.
The next time you consider a job change, get the data ahead of time to go into the interview and salary negotiations with a clear idea of what you are worth and what you should be paid for spending 40-50 hours per week at a job.
It is a crappy situation that the best opportunities for a raise require you to leave your current employer in most situations, but that is just how things are these days.
When taking that kind of risk, do not get pigeon holed into revealing your past salary. If you have a job where you are doing well, you have the luxury of holding out on imperfect offers waiting for the right one to arrive.
Sometimes in an interview, an interviewer may try to force you to give your old salary. I learned that it is better to stand firm and focus on a target salary based on the value you can provide to the company than an arbitrary pay level based on what you used to make.
Remember, focus on what value you can provide. That is the key to landing a great job. When you show up, don’t forget to deliver on what you promised.
Not long ago, it was impossible to know objectively what your industry peers were paid across companies and locations. Now you can. Take advantage of the data to earn more, one of the core pillars of Personal Profitability.