Excerpt of The Career Playbook: Essential Advice for Today’s Aspiring Young Professional by James M. Citrin

The Right Job or the Right Company?
That Is the Question

What is more important to you: getting into the right job or getting into the right company?

The right job is one that pays well, offers meaningful work, puts you under the direction of a good boss, and includes opportunities for advancement. The right company is one that is well known and respected, offering good training and a brand that you’re proud to be associated with.

A majority of the young professionals we surveyed believe that getting into the right job, regardless of the company, is more important than getting into the right organization. But when their answers are compared to those of senior business leaders, the answer is not as clear. On the basis of our survey results, a mentor or parent is likely to advise you that the organization is more important than the job. And more than three-quarters of the top leaders we surveyed advised that the right company or organization is most important for young professionals starting out in their careers.

If this chart were to be turned into a dialogue, it might go something like this:

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• Business Leader (or Parent): Just get your foot in the door at a respected company, and opportunities will open up.

• Young Professional: But I want to be in a place where I can have a big impact—and I’m concerned that if I don’t start in the right job, I may find myself in a dead end.

This is a challenging dilemma, especially since it’s impossible to peer ahead into the future and find out for sure whether you will enjoy a job, or whether the position will lead to something more. But there’s an additional layer to our survey data that may help frame your thinking on the question.

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More than half of the young professionals who chose the company over the job indicated that they were “happy” or “extremely happy.” By contrast, only one-third of the young professionals who said that getting the right job was most important reported that they were either happy or extremely happy. While I don’t want to draw too definitive a conclusion from these numbers, they do suggest a couple of important points about happiness as it relates to your career. As detailed in chapter 4 about relationships and networks, the single most important factor leading to happiness at work is the quality of your relationships2. And there is a direct connection between the strength of an organization and the opportunity to build enriching relationships. The fact is that winning companies attract higher-caliber people and tend to have more positive cultures that foster the collaboration and shared experiences that in turn lead to quality relationships.

2 One hundred percent of the business leaders and 97 percent of the young professionals cited “the quality of my relationships” as one of the most important factors that led to their happiness—­more than health, personal impact, and money.

Go “Blue Chip” Early

My personal view on this question is that you should “go blue chip” early. The organizations you work for early in your career will always be part of your story. In the same way that attending Harvard, Stanford, or Oxford makes you a strong candidate for an entry-level job, joining the “best” company early in your career will give you a credibility that can open doors as your professional life unfolds.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched boards of directors evaluate the quality of a CEO candidate on the basis of the first organization he or she worked for. For example, one search committee had this to say about a forty-five-year-old e-commerce executive who had spent her first seven years at General Electric: “Well, she had her foundational experience at GE, so she learned what it’s like to operate a business and hold others accountable.” Granted, it’s more difficult to make connections like this today, when the “right” organization might employ only twenty or thirty people. But I still believe that joining a blue-chip organization is more likely to provide you with the opportunity to build friendships with other outstanding people, people who will go on to achieve great things and support you in your efforts to do the same.

As with most things career related, landing a first job at a blue-chip company is easier said than done. You may be offered only a minimum-wage internship or a potentially dead-end job in a prestigious company. If you find yourself in this dilemma, how should you decide whether to accept?

First, make sure to ask the hiring manager some questions:

Over the past three years, how many interns have you had, and how many were offered full-time roles?

What is your company’s track record of moving young people laterally from one group to another? How does that work in practice?

What is the person who last held this job doing today?

What kinds of people are most successful in the organization? What are the common characteristics of those who don’t make the grade?

It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be so overt that you come across as wanting an entirely different job than the one for which you’re being considered. But you can ask about the opportunities for growth and the career tracks of others who have worked in the position.

If the company’s practice and culture is to “start in the mail room” and move up from there—as is the case in talent agencies and companies like UPS, where almost everyone starts as a driver—that might give you the confidence you need to take the leap.

Alternatively, if you receive a good offer from an organization you don’t quite love, you might ask yourself a different set of questions:

Have people moved from this company to others that I admire?

Will the job push me to learn valuable new skills?

How will this role help me figure out if this is the right kind of job for me?

As I look around the company, do I see people who seem to share my interests and values?

In both cases, you can look up people from that company on LinkedIn to see how they’ve moved internally or where they went afterward. This will give you real insights into whether the job—and company—are right for you.

Other Factors to Consider

Beyond the right job/right company debate, which other factors should you consider when sorting through your options? There are, of course, the three dimensions of the Career Triangle: job quality, lifestyle, and pay. But at a more detailed level, what other attributes should you consider?

In our survey results, there are areas of overlap and notable differences between what business leaders and people in the early stages of their careers believe. Business leaders said almost unanimously that company culture and fit should be your top priority in choosing a job. Young professionals agree that culture is important, but they don’t rank it quite as high. Business leaders advise young professionals to consider the organization’s CEO and top management team; after all, the company’s culture starts at the top. As discussed in chapter 3 about money, business leaders and young professionals value compensation differently. Another disparity has to do with the preferred size of the organization. Business leaders prefer the greater resources that large companies offer, while young professionals often prefer smaller companies with more entrepreneurial environments.

While size and compensation are important, top business leaders and young professionals agree that these should take a back seat to other factors. Most important are the potential for advancement, the functional area you will be working in, and starting out in an industry that is growing or that tends to pay well.

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