Sector, function, region – where and how to focus your career.
When I was in consulting and was exposed to projects across different sectors, functions, and regions, I came up with the ‘Cube’ concept. I found it helpful to think about my career choices also later on, while at business school and in my current role. The concept is simple – it is difficult to be expert in everything, so you better choose what to focus on and what your area of expertise will be.
Imagine a cube (a la rubic cube, but with many more cubes on each side – see cube), which has three axes – sector, function, and region. Your job most probably fits into one, or possibly two or three, little cubes. You may be a finance person focusing on technology sector across Western Europe (as was my case when doing technology M&A and later investing in London), or you can be a marketing person focused on retail in the USA. It is possible you have a role with a strong primary axis (often functional), but weak secondary axes – e.g. you are a marketing or HR specialist across sectors, and potentially across regions. Or you have a couple of primary focus areas, while the others are secondary. There are a countless of combinations, but you get the point by now.
In the beginning of the career, ideally still during your studies through internships, it is good to be exposed to as many of these little ‘cubes’ as possible – try different functions, different sectors, and ideally also different countries/regions, if you have an opportunity. Consulting experience is perfect for that. It is good for two reasons. First, you build solid business foundations and see the business more holistically. You start seeing interlinks between functions, and realize implications of e.g. finance decisions on your sales/marketing strategy. Second, you may realize what you like and what you want to focus your career on.
I believe that to be truly successful, you need to become a specialist in something (at the right time, after laying the foundations and discovering what you like). In some area, you want to be better than others, if not the best. That’s the reason why you will be hired, promoted, and (well) compensated. Average is not good enough in an increasingly competitive world. This may be a functional/sector expertise (as per our cube example), or it can be a set of skills – communication/networking skills or analytical skills (more on that in another blog).
In my personal example, I had around 8 internships while still an undergraduate student, including finance (M&A), investing, operations, marketing, consulting, and public affairs, across a range of sectors, and both in Central Europe (my home country) and the USA. I discovered relatively quickly that I enjoyed finance and that will be my primary axis for my career (at least the first part of it). I also discovered that I want international career, and to do finance on an international level, I may need to be in London or one of the other global financial centers. At that time, I was ambivalent about a sector specialization – during my time in consulting, I spent time across multiple sectors, ranging from energy through banking to chemicals.
Once you settle in your initial job and ideally figure out where your passion lies, you can start building your expertise. In my example, once I discovered that my key career focus area will be finance, I could start building my knowledge and expertise – choose projects/tasks giving me new skills; read relevant books and articles; pursue industry certifications (more at another time); and plan my next career steps. You do not need to master the universe of knowledge available on the subject; there is clearly an inflection point and a law of decreasing marginal utility starts kicking in. At some point, you know enough and the rest can be learnt/researched when needed.
Later on in your career, you may start adding additional ‘cubes’ or ‘axes’ to your expertise basket. When I came to do M&A in London, everyone was a finance person doing deals in Western Europe. That’s where the sector focus kicked in for me, and I started focusing on TMT (tech/media/telecom). Later on, after a few years in my role in an investment fund focusing on the TMT sector in London, I wanted to add the US experience/expertise, as the Silicon Valley is the cradle of most technology innovation. And thus I asked for, and was fortunate enough to be offered, a mobility opportunity to our Silicon Valley office to focus on technology.
When I was at business school, where many people go to change their careers trajectories, we received a helpful advice no to try too many dimensions of your career at once. If you are a sales person from pharma industry in the UK and want to move to a different sector, greatest chances are to look for sales roles in your target sector in the UK. You are thus keeping one area of expertise, while adding others. Changing across all dimensions/axes may be less feasible and too risky. In my case, I stayed ‘loyal’ to my finance focus since the early beginning of my career, added TMT/tech sector later on, and then diversified my regional focus from Central Europe, to Western Europe, and finally to the US. I always had to learn other regions specificities, but was able to leverage my functional (and later sector) expertise, and thus was not starting from scratch.
You will find that career is not always easy to put into boxes and plan ahead. Some choices will be made for you by your circumstances or by your employer. At other times, you may need to be flexible and take up on new opportunities which will come up. But as Yogi Berra said, ‘if you don’t know where you are going, you probably won’t get there’ – so have a plan, but also an open mind.