Why kitchen cabinets trump corner offices

By General

node network chartWhen I started my career at a blue chip publisher, furniture mattered. Your career progression was reflected through office floorplans and desk hues: you migrated from low cubicle to high cubicle to office, and the final destination was a corner office replete with faux mahogany. Dream big, kids, the story went: at the end of all those 60-hour work weeks there may be a credenza in your future.

The internet broke all that, and thank God. While a full-on holacracy remains hard to achieve, access to information and ideas has led organizations to become flatter, and companies large and small strive to seek out the best ideas from anywhere. Organizations like General Electric, LEGO, and NASA have open innovation programs to crowdsource solutions to hard problems internally and externally. When good ideas flow up and down and across an organization, career paths are less regimented, and roles more fluid.

So if furniture is no longer a unifying principle for career progression, what is? Here’s one immutable truth: the importance of building your team. I don’t mean this in the narrow sense of “these are the people I will hire into my organization to get the job done.” I’m referring to the smart people who share your professional passions, whose counsel you can seek about the big stuff.

This is a small kitchen cabinet or brain trust — it’s not your LinkedIn contacts, which can quickly skyrocket too far beyond Dunbar’s number to be meaningful. These are the people you call with an intractable problem or professional dilemma, and the strength of this group will be vital to a successful career. Why? Because in an era where hierarchies have flattened, good ideas can come from anywhere, and seniority does not automatically equate to advancement, a strong kitchen cabinet can provide feedback and insight to help you remain competitive.

So, how do you think about building and nurturing this inner circle? You may start with a mentor or two from the beginning of your career, add early colleagues you bond with, and in time find protégés who will, with any luck, match or outstrip you. You’ll come up with your own filters, but here are five lenses to consider when building your team:

  1. Find those with the same values. Jobs and skills change over time, but it’s hard for values to change. It’s helpful to have some core shared beliefs about business practices and work-life balance. Also, that guy with that killer exit who tipped 10 bucks on a $200 check for a four-top? You may not want to bet long-term on that one.
  2. Embrace team members who share your passions. Your team should include people who will stay up late to solve a problem alongside you. Not because “they owe you,” but because they are as determined and obsessive as you are to get to the bottom of it.
  3. Resist the strong pull of homophily. It’s easy to slide into a comfortable groove with someone with a lot of similar life experience. Someone who also went to prep school, or also lives in Chicago, or also was a monster coder in junior high. Those people can be comfortable, but won’t always bring alternative approaches that challenge your assumptions. Remember that there all kinds of uniforms, and the culture of the hoodie can at times be as constraining as that of the three-piece suit.
  4. Practice discrimination. Some ideas are better than others. Some people are smarter than others. This team is not everyone in your professional network whom you respect, and would be willing to do a solid for. Filter for those whose smarts and rigor challenge you, and who can be engaged with your most important problems — and you’ll care enough to dive into theirs.
  5. Bet on those who will call you on your bullshit. If you’re young and promising, or have built a decent career, it’s easy to find people who will blow smoke. Find the ones who will point out your bad ideas, narcissistic excesses, or lack of intellectual rigor. It can be hard to hear even constructive criticism, but you want your team to be thoughtful allies, not unapologetic supporters.

A lot has changed about how people think about and manage their careers today. Job tenures are shorter, organizational lines separating employee, consultant, and customer more porous, and boundaries between professional and personal ever-shifting. One thing will never change: the need to build the right team. So don’t get caught up climbing the ladder of desks, when you’ll reap greater rewards from assembling and investing in a trusted kitchen cabinet.

Originally published at the Experiment Fund, a Cambridge-based fund investing in world-changing startups.


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