Retirement Planning & How to Retire Early
Many people are concerned about their retirement planning but put it aside for far too long. Unfortunately, this often leads to a retirement you settle for versus a retirement you want. Retirement planning is a process you put in place to manage your finances after you leave the workforce or sell your business. Retirement planning involves various steps, including planning when to start, figuring out how much money you will need to maintain the lifestyle you want after you retire, identifying priorities (what is most important, not negotiable, and what is least important), planning investments and figuring out who will manage those investments. If you plan to manage your investments yourself, you will need to learn to do so. If you plan to delegate this to a financial planner, you will need to learn enough to see if they are doing a good job for you. And then, you also need to plan for how to make your retirement enjoyable. This often means having sufficient mental stimulation and social interactions to maintain a full and engaging life.
Please note that we are not financial planners. Please ensure you get proper advice from financial planners before making changes to your retirement planning goals. We are sharing with you some key insights that may help you as you are thinking through your retirement planning.
What are some of the most common financial and non-financial challenges associated with retirement?
Loss of identity. I see this often with clients even before retirement if they lose their job or decide to take some time off work due to burnout.
Lack of succession planning. If a retiring person is running their own business, there are challenges with exiting the business. Children often do not want to take over, and selling is difficult and stressful. Over 80% of businesses listed for sale do not sell after the first listing. Many business owners give up and close doors, with all assets built over decades going to waste.
Unsatisfactory lifestyle due to lack of income. There is often a noticeable negative impact on the type of lifestyle a person can have. Many people have to cut down on expenses after they stop working. They miscalculate how much money they need to live comfortably.
Not able to pay unexpected medical expenses. Medical expenses can quickly put someone in debt. Just one trip to the hospital can result in a huge issue for a retired person as a significant part, or the entire savings can go to cover the bill. I know a person who went to a hospital for one hour and ended up with a statement for USD20,000.
How can someone who has retired best navigate the obstacles to ensure their retirement years are lived to their fullest?
Continue being involved in some kind of work. It helps the keep mind sharp. When people completely retire, they often age faster and die sooner because they stop developing their minds. I see it so often with retired partners from major consulting firms. Once they stop being involved in some kind of work, their life and health start deteriorating quite rapidly. You may do consulting or coaching for a few hours a week, and that will keep you in contact with the world. You can also acquire or build a business that requires only a few hours of work per week, where you can be as involved as you want and have a team running the rest of it for you. It is not as difficult as it seems to build or acquire a business like this, and we work with clients to help them acquire and run a business.
Consider getting a coach to help you restart your career. If you left the workforce and feel you miss working, get a coach who can get you results and help you do this effectively. You can work with us, or you can work with many other coaches out there, but get someone who can help you. Your coach can help you set up goals and then figure out the steps needed to get there, which we call your critical path, and help you along the way as you are taking the steps.
Have a good social life. Surround yourself with other interesting people who care about some of the same things as you so you can have a full life. Humans need social interaction, so it is crucial not to isolate yourself. This becomes especially important in retirement.
Do not allow yourself to think of yourself as an old person. Focus on what you have (decades of experience, a lot of knowledge, achievements, great kids) instead of what you don’t have (for example, if you wish you were younger, or you feel your energy level is not where it used to be, etc.). Often clients tell me, “I am old. I am 50 years old.” And I tell them that if they spoke to someone who is 75 or 85, that person would tell them that they are a baby.
How to Retire Early
You may be asking yourself how to retire early. If you want to retire early, building your own business is the fastest path I know to it. It is not as hard as it seems. It’s hard the first few years, and it gets easier.
You can also buy a fully operational business. Buying a business can allow you to retire early as soon as you build a team to manage the business’s day-to-day operations. Many businesses for sale are SBA pre-approved, so you can buy a business for as little as 10% down.
If I continued to work as a management consultant or a banker I would not be in a position to retire because in corporate world when you stop working you stop getting paid, and it takes a long time to invest enough money to accumulate enough to retire. Of course, you want to invest and take advantage of the power of compounding. The power of compounding refers to when gains grow on top of other gains. For example, if you invest $1,000 in one year and it goes to $1,100 the next year, your next year’s gains will be on top of the $1100, not the original amount you put in. Over time, that compound growth can significantly boost returns. Compounding effect, however, takes time. I have not found a faster way to build wealth than starting or buying a business. If you build or buy a business, a machine that runs, adds value to clients, and build a team to run that machine, you can retire or semi-retire early.
I am an example of someone who could retire at 40, or even earlier, after building my business and building a team who could run it. I choose to continue to work because, for me, it is about fulfilling my mission of helping my clients stop professional suffering. However, there are situations when I can’t work, and in such situations, my business continues to operate because I have a great team that helps run day to day. For example, this spring, I had to attend to a family emergency for a few weeks, and, during that time, at times, I stepped away from the business and my team was running it.
About the Author: Kris Safarova is a USA Today, Wall Street Journal and Amazon bestselling author who has published 20+ books on business strategy, leadership and problem solving. She is the CEO of FIRMSconsulting.com and StrategyTraining.com, the latter which is the largest business strategy video training platform in the world. Two of her podcasts, Strategy Skills and Case Interviews & Management Consulting, are often ranked in the Top-10 for careers in many countries.
She holds a Diploma in Music, a B.Comm, cum laude, and a MBA with distinction and on the deans list, the latter from Ivey Business School in Canada. She worked as a management consultant and corporate finance director, where she managed a >USD$1 billion portfolio. Kris was a master classical concert pianist and official music representative of the Russian Federation, who toured Europe. Kris has studied voice for decades, most recently under Roger Love, the world’s top voice coach, to become a reputed and certified executive presence and speaking coach. Kris Safarova is a professional with a decades-long track record of rapid promotions in the corporate world and building successful businesses.
“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been
their finest hour.”
FINALLY: A CHANCE TO DISCOVER EXACTLY WHAT KRIS AND MICHAEL ONLY REVEAL TO OUR HIGHEST PAYING CLIENTS IN PRIVATE? NOW YOU CAN…
VIP level (6 months + additional access/deep dive one on one coaching). Special price (conditions apply) $14,995: Apply for VIP Now
Elite level (3 months of access). Special price (conditions apply $5,995): Apply for Elite Now
Installment options are available (outlined below).
Unfortunately, many professionals are ignored, miss out on promotions, or feel they are on the wrong path and not living up to their potential. This results in feeling frustrated and under-appreciated. We have tested strategy tools and blueprints that allow our clients to stop being ignored, get promoted or start their own business, and find a greater career and personal fulfillment, and a higher level of contribution.
The MasterPlan Coaching Program is a personal group-mentoring program where we work personally with you to help you develop and start implementing YOUR MasterPlan. This coaching program is designed to help clients with the guided implementation of our most popular Insider program, the MasterPlan program. In the MasterPlan program, we cover the critical skills and strategies we developed for our most successful executive coaching clients and give you a blueprint to significantly alter your career.
Imagine the power of getting personalized guidance and coaching aligned with your unique situation, as you are developing your MasterPlan and start guided implementation.
We are putting together a small cohort of group coaching clients. The founders circle, as such. This program makes coaching with us accessible to a broader group of clients.
As one client recently said:If Michael had been my mentor from high school, I would be a President by now. Click To Tweet
What makes this program different?
How did we train Andrew to go from senior manager to senior equity partner in 3 years? How did we help Fei outperform her peers at a major PE firm? How did we coach CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies? How do we simultaneously manage so many studies to such high quality of insights? Why do we take on such punishing work?
In the span of few years, on top of everything else we are doing as part of FIRMSconsulting’s core priorities, we also have co-founded an electric car start-up in China, a luxury brands business in Europe, and we also co-own a precious metals mine.
These ventures are core to our mission of teaching business strategy in a compelling manner. Because we meticulously track the development, tactics, strategies, meetings, finances, and trials and tribulations of every single business, to produce detailed training programs.
I get asked this question a lot: How do we achieve so much and to such high levels of quality while remaining so energized? This program answers these questions. We will help you build YOUR master plan.
We designed this program to completely reinvent and revive your career. This is a program about doing big things. Things that you would not believe were possible.
We have condensed all the key lessons from our most popular programs and, based on member feedback, provide more advanced tools and techniques.
Productivity is not about how much you can do to a high level of quality. That is a myth that harms your career. To be successful in life you should not build a career around your competitive advantages in life. That may lead to very average career. Too much planning may paralyze you. Too much education may paralyze you.
You need to know when is enough and move forward.
You do not need a fancy degree, or any degree, to be successful in business. You just need to be in a career or pursuing an idea. Success comes from doing a few things consistently well.
Tatiana had a Wharton MBA and struggled to get her business moving until we completely changed the way she managed herself, then her team, and finally her business.
This coaching program will be hard but if you stick to it your results should be no different from that of the clients above.
This program explains how we keep our performance high and how we help clients keep their performance high, and it is based on us having personally advised CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies.
Maintaining a high level of performance is NOT about simply having the problem-solving skills of a McKinsey, BCG et al. partner. It is about MORE than communication and leadership skills. If you want to operate at our level, and the level of our most successful executive clients like Andrew, Richard, Fei, Chetan, and Tatiana, and CEO clients, then you should try to get in and be a part of this rare opportunity to not only watch The MasterPlan Program but to personally work with creators of the MasterPlan program and get individualized guidance and coaching applicable to your personal situation.
It can literally change your life.
Objectives of the program:
- More clarity on the Massive Transformation Purpose (MTP aka vision)
- Develop a MasterPlan/the critical path/blueprint for your career and life
- Start a guided implementation of your MasterPlan with our coaching
- 6 months (VIP)/3 months (Elite) challenge towards the result YOU want to accomplish, with milestones and accountability
- Identifying your assets (competitive advantage vs. comparative advantage)
- Help you understand and break down limiting beliefs, limited mindsets, old patterns, and bad habits that may be holding you stuck
- Dealing with personal circumstances and how to have a balance between career/business growth and personal life/taking care of your health/family/community
- Getting results
- A support system and an opportunity to establish a life-long network, and potentially friendships with other accomplished professionals in a deliberately small select peer group
It’s an opportunity for an elevation in your position, getting consistent guidance and support on your journey, gaining clarity on the vision, learning from other accomplished professionals.
This program was co-designed with some of our closest clients. Here are paraphrased descriptions of this program from our clients that you may find helpful. However, please don’t allow those descriptions to limit what this program can do for you …
- “It’s a group of people that want to create some very large change in their life. They either do know what it is or don’t know what it is. They don’t want to waste tons of time figuring out things without guidance and mentorship. There’s a bunch of learnings that are out there and coaching that can help them avoid making the wrong moves for them. And then once they are somewhat clear on where they want to head towards, of course, there’ll be nuances they go about learning, helping them avoid the pitfalls that often they would have fallen into along that change.”
- “It’s not going to be a program for too junior of a person… Looking at our career as if it’s four quarters of a sports game. And starting at the age 25 to 35, that’s the first quarter. And age 35 to 45, that’s the second quarter. 45 is halftime… and 55 is the end of the 3rd quarter and 65 is game over. Now, that sounds a little harsh, but just looking over 10-year spans, this is probably a program for somebody who’s approaching that halftime. Still has a third quarter, fourth quarter. How we can use the experience gained from the first half of the game to be able to really create a high magnitude impact in the 3rd and 4th quarters of the game.”
- “A way to get structure, encouragement, and action towards your big life’s goals.”
- “Learn and apply MasterPlan Program tools to launch something big in the next decade. You’ll identify your purpose; pick your unique 10 filters to evaluate every opportunity; identify your role models; and make big progress in your Phase 1. Plus you’ll get support from FC partners and motivated, mid-career Insiders who are also launching something big.”
A unique 4-part structure
THANK YOU to our FC Insiders for Your Feedback!
You asked to introduce a focused career coaching program. You asked for mentorship opportunities.
Here’s the 4-part structure we’re going to use to make the MasterPlan coaching even BETTER than any one-on-one program we ever offered …
PART 1 – LIVE SMALL PRIVATE GROUP COACHING SESSIONS (SPG) DURING THE 1ST, 2ND AND 3RD WEEK OF THE MONTH
- We also call these career clinics.
- Exclusively for MPC Members.
- Guaranteed personalized attention from Michael/Kris.
- Interactive SPG/touch-point with Michael/Kris, giving individual feedback to participants as they progress through the critical path outlined in the training program, with a goal of progressing towards their goal.
- You will complete steps of the critical path leading to your goal.
- We review your progress/material submitted/your questions during the 1st, 2nd and 3rd week of the month, and provide personalized feedback.
- You have an opportunity to get your individual questions answered during the 1st, 2nd and 3rd week of the month.
- Have a decision to make? You can get our perspective to help you make the decision. If you are stuck with not knowing the best approach to follow, you can get guidance in the SPG.
- You can call in from a hotel room, airport lounge, or your home office. We will select a time that is the best compromise for the whole group.
- Regular SPG calls allow you to have consistent feedback as you are progressing through the critical path outlined in the training program.
- Can’t attend some sessions live? Submit your questions to review, we’ll answer it during the career clinic session and you’ll get our feedback in the VIDEO REPLAY.
- Watch us mentor other participants, and learn from them and alongside them.
- You will see the feedback we offer them and see the progress they make.
- You are not just learning from your feedback, but from all the members on the call – shorten your learning curve.
- This is of greater value than you may realize and real breakthroughs often come from an idea triggered by listening to feedback for another participant.
- Troubleshoot your most pressing career issues and goals.
- Ensuring participants do not get stuck or stagnate. Clients said they need bi-weekly or at least monthly interaction with us to use our formidable tools and methodologies to help them maximize the results they can achieve. The duration of the sessions depends on what participants need. We schedule 1 hour but it is not uncommon for sessions to be around 1.5 to 2 hours long.
What are the Dates?
You tell US!
Vote on time and day of the week options. Approximately Saturday or Sunday 3pm PST on most weeks,
so you can take the call in private and without stress. We will pick the best compromise time for everyone, including Michael.
$36,000 VALUE for VIP and $18,000 VALUE for Elite. Tuition fee for this program? See below
PART 2 – MASTERPLAN AND IMPLEMENT THE MASTERPLAN TRAINING SERIES EXPLAINING THE ENTIRE CAREER REINVENTION PROCESS. REPLAYS.
- Career transformation critical path taught as training lessons.
- This career approach/method/steps can be applied to all careers from strategy to operations, to digital, to start-ups, to government. While we are known for helping clients become senior rainmakers in consulting, our executive coaching clients very successfully applied our approaches outside of consulting.
- A clear outcome. Designing YOUR unique MasterPlan and critical path and starting guided implementation so you can start gaining momentum.
- Complete your work for each step and use small private group coaching sessions (career clinics) to accelerate your progress and results.
- Additional 9 months access to the training series and replays of all small private group coaching sessions after the coaching program ends, in case you need a refresher.
$7,000. VALUE. Tuition fee for this program? See below
PART 3 – ONE-ON-ONE STRATEGY SESSION WITH KRIS
- Elite: 1 hour strategy session with Kris.
- VIP: monthly 1 hour deep dive strategy call with Kris (6 one hour strategy sessions during the duration of the program).
$6,000 VALUE for VIP and $1,000 VALUE for Elite. Tuition fee for this program? See below
PART 4 – CRITICAL PATH DOWNLOADABLE RESOURCES
- Critical path downloadable resources to help you work through the program effectively.
$3,000. VALUE. Tuition fee for this program? See below
180 Days (VIP)/90 Days (Elite) of Personal Mentorship with Michael/Kris to help you transform your career.
(1) LIVE SMALL PRIVATE GROUP COACHING SESSIONS (SPG)/CAREER CLINICS
(2) 3-MONTH PROGRAM SHOWING THE CRITICAL PATH FOR THE CAREER TRANSFORMATION PROCESS
(3) ONE-ON-ONE STRATEGY SESSION(S) WITH KRIS (monthly 1 hour deep dive strategy call for VIPs/one 1 hour session for Elite)
(4) DOWNLOADABLE RESOURCES
Like-Minded Community & Support
… To help you get even Bigger Results and Faster Results…
THE MASTERPLAN MENTORSHIP PATHWAY
Small Private Group Coaching Sessions/Career Clinics ($36,000 VIP/$18,000 Elite)
Training Program of the Entire Career Transformation Process ($7,000)
One-on-one strategy session(s) with Kris ($6,000 – six 1 hour strategy sessions – VIP)/$1,000 – one 1 hour strategy session – Elite)
Exclusive Community (Priceless! At least $2,000)
Downloadable Resources ($3,000)
$54,000/$31,000.00. Tuition fee for this program? See below
We are creating 2 levels to make the program more accessible. Pricing:
Apply for VIP: 6 months of access to coaching and guidance plus deep dive one-on-one coaching (monthly 1 hour deep dive strategy call during the duration of the program). We are offering a special price for clients who are willing to support us with a video testimonial if they find the program valuable. And if you pay upfront there are additional savings. The upfront price under this special condition for VIP is $14,995. However installment option is also available (below). Apply Now.
Installment options for VIP:
Payment of $4,995 this week.
6 payments of $1,995 by 10th of each month during 6 months period 2022.
Payment of $2,995 this week.
6 payments of $2,450 by 10th of each month during 6 months period 2022.
To apply for VIP with an installment plan complete the application here and then once you are on the payment page use the link above to make a payment using an installment option of your choice.
Apply for Elite: 3 months of access to coaching and guidance as described above. We are offering a special price for clients who are willing to support us with a video testimonial if they find the program valuable. And if you pay upfront there are additional savings. The upfront price under this special condition for Elite is $5,995. However installment option is also available (below). Apply Now.
Installment option for Elite:
Payment of $1,995 this week.
3 payments of $1,650 by 10th of each month during 3 months period.
To apply for Elite with an installment plan complete the application here and then once you are on the payment page use the link above to make a payment using an installment option.
We are filling in the remaining seats now. If you are inclined to embark on this journey apply above. If you have any questions email [email protected]
Terms and conditions apply. If for any reason the seat can’t be allocated, we will initiate the refund within 3 business days.
There are times when everything goes wrong with your career plans. This happens often in life. It happened to me multiple times …
We work with many partners and executives and they sometimes break contact for a few months. When they resurface the most common reason provided is that things went chaotically off track and they needed time to stop everything, including their personal development, to fix the problem and regroup before resuming with their careers.
It happens to all of us. We can all recall times when things became so bad we felt like quitting and barely made it through. I can personally recall a few such times earlier in my life. And the common theme is that most clients feel blindsided when chaos occurs. They are shocked that it happened.
We are dealing with some chaotic times in our organization. What helps us manage this is operating under the assumption that the very worst that could happen will happen. We are not hoping to avoid the problems. We have a plan for when they eventually will likely happen. And they will happen. The exact problems may not be what we expected but we expect catastrophic problems.
This is a stark departure from the way the world is usually run and the way most clients run their careers. This is especially true for the majority of our clients who assume a platinum education, employer and residency will insulate them from any possible shock.
If a client makes a $250,000 salary with bonuses in the current year, clients just assume this will be their salary plus a 2% yearly increase for the next 30 years.
Clients spend to the hilt. We have clients who have canceled a monthly premium membership subscription to buy a home. A home is a worthy investment but it is unwise to invest in anything where the margin for a severe cash crisis is the cost of a monthly premium subscription.
Most clients do not have a contingency plan for health problems. What happens if you cannot work for 6 months? What happens if you lose your job? What happens if your company’s market share collapses?
Our operating philosophy is called “be prepared to play in extra time.” It is a football (soccer) analogy. Most football teams try to win the game during regular time and give up if the game goes to extra time. We believe things will be tough and we need to have a strategy to fight it out in extra time.
We expect to be playing in extra time.
There are important insights here. If a football game is 45 mins x 2 halves. That is 90 minutes. Extra time is 15 mins x 2 halves. That means we have to be prepared to be working 33% (30 min / 90min) longer and harder than anyone else.
It means we have to be fitter. We have to have more energy reserves. We need to set aside time to practice for this.
This is a mindset. Surprises are bad when they are surprises. They are not so bad when you expected the very worst things to happen. We discuss this much more in The MasterPlan Program, which I highly recommend Insiders revisit during this time of year.
Getting derailed in your 20s and early 30s is hard, but you will recover. Getting derailed in your late 30s and 40s results in many people getting completely stalled in their careers for the rest of their lives. In large part, because they never had the mindset to expect it. They never had the thinking and plans in place to see it through. They never looked for guidance and coaching to help them navigate out of it.
We run the companies very frugally. Frugality is a centerpiece of our operating philosophy. We invest in assets. We don’t spend on unnecessary expenses. We call this having a fortress balance sheet.
Every time you face a problem in life, it is linked to money.
A failed product launch makes you apprehensive about your job since you need the salary to pay for your mortgage, kids’ education, and your college debt. A fortress balance sheet is just that. It means having the financial resources and time to wait out any surprises.
The hard part is sticking to the plan. We use the term “stay in formation.”
If you ever work with us, you will hear these three phrases very often. Staying in formation means not panicking and worrying. It means not doing crazy and irresponsible things when things go wrong. My father sold his shares when the Russian stock market collapsed a few years ago. He did not stay in formation. He should have waited it out and I wish he would have asked for my advice or at least shared his plans.
Despite all the things that are going wrong because of COVID, especially for our start-ups, our view is things are unfolding better than we expected since we expected much worse at this point and planned for much worse.
In our view, all these obstacles may even work to our advantage since they could reduce the noise in the sectors our start-ups operate in.
Staying in formation is about sticking to the strategy because it is the right thing to do. Staying in formation does not mean asking the opinions of 10 friends who are not invested in the business and don’t understand the strategy, and changing the plans to follow the most popular advice.
Staying in formation is very hard. You need to have a contrarian view. You need to trust your earlier thinking and trust your implementation. It means disagreeing with people.
It’s possible that because I grew up during the collapse of the Former Soviet Union, having contingencies and contingencies for contingencies is the norm for me. Yet, it is your life. Even if you live in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest country in the world, you need to be ready for anything.
Especially for our community. Most of you are attracted to high-profile roles. So are your peers. Everyone is chasing too few roles. Sometimes you will get them, sometimes you will not.
And it is guaranteed as you age, your firm will decide newer, fresher minds will be needed. You will be out. Even the greatest strategy partner eventually becomes a strategy partner emeritus. And that is one of the reasons we are introducing a high support coaching program for those clients who want to work with us to start purpose-driven authority-based online businesses. If you are interested, click here to be notified and email [email protected] if you are specifically interested to apply for a spot to work with us to launch or build your authority-based online business so we can have you on the radar for a few spots we will have for the upcoming cohort.
Regardless of whether you see yourself ultimately building an authority-based business or continuing your career in the corporate world, if you model your life to be ready for the worst things, they are not so bad when it happens. It starts with not blaming yourself when bad things happen to you. It starts with not assuming someone else was at fault when things go wrong. Blaming does not serve you well. You can only live life forward.
Much in life is outside of your control. Build a fortress balance sheet. Be prepared to play in extra time and always stay in formation.
P.S. I hope you will find this message helpful. Email us at [email protected] and let us know what do you struggle with the most in your career or business. I read every reply to our emails to the FIRMSconsulting community. And my team is here to support you on your journey. Please note that due to holidays there will be a delay with reply.
P.S.S. And as you are building your skills with FIRMSconsulting content, or any other resources, please also focus on building a skill set that will serve you for the rest of your life, versus only focusing on achieving a short-term goal.
This week we will speak about how to think about what should be your competitive advantage and comparative advantage as you are building your career or business. Developing a sustainable and realistic competitive advantage and comparative advantage in your career is challenging. Everyone reading this understands how difficult and tiresome it is to renew your profile so that you remain attractive to your organization and clients on a daily, weekly, and yearly cycle.
And it is not just about being better than you were 12 months ago, it means being attractive relative to your peers and competitors. Each year thousands of MBAs and other graduates enter the workforce with fabulous credentials, and your peers get staffed onto choice assignments close to the senior leaders of the organization. And for those of us living in the Western world age is often viewed as a liability versus an asset. Discrimination based on age is still acceptable and tolerated to a large degree. We live in a crazy world where 40 year old is considered old by many people in their 20s and 30s, even though we as humans are living longer and longer.
Competing earlier in your career is easier. You can get an MBA, you can switch organizations more easily, you can even switch careers.
But how in the world do you compete as you go over 35, and over 40?
We received the email below from a former client, Stanford MBA graduate we placed at McKinsey in San Francisco some time back, who has since left and is working for Google.
His career is not going well. He is struggling to define a role for himself within Google and feels he is adding little to no value. He believes the competition is just too much for him. He gets up most days and wonders what he will do. I know he has been reading all kinds of books from authors like Malcolm Gladwell, in the hope of finding some tenuous competitive advantage for his career.
“I returned to the US after my vacation. Thanks for all the cool changes to the site. I will dig in if I get a chance!
I just read “Outliers” and it lifted my spirits. Please read it when you have time.
After much to and from on this, I am going to build my career around my quantitative skills in financial analyses on the business development side. I am good at it, I like it and Google is doing a lot of acquisitions so these skills are in enormous demand.
Any advice you have will be great to hear.”
I thought the advice we sent him would be useful to everyone. What follows is our response.
“We will go back to some of the basics around how you should make this decision. I will lay this out so you can follow my thinking and see how I arrived at my conclusions.
We assume competitive advantage is a measurable strength or attribute. We think there are individual and discreet things we can measure. For example, a company may assume its competitive advantage is access to 30 million cable subscribers. That is measurable and largely singular. It is one thing that is easy to measure, easy to focus on, and, therefore, easier to defend.
Focusing on 4 things to defend is much tougher.
Professionals like you and I tend to do the same. We try to find one, two, or three measurable strengths and claim it is our competitive advantage. In your case, it is your awesome excel jockey skills and possibly your ability to present those numbers you have crunched.
The single most important reason why we define competitive advantage in these simple terms is because it is easy to do so. It is easy to write about simplified concepts. They tend to make intuitive sense and everyone is repeating it – so how can it be wrong?
Well, you can write books about it because it creates such a compelling and easy storyline:
Step 1: Make a list of your skills
Step 2: Filter out what you like
Step 3: Filter out what you are good at
Step 4: Work at it for 10,000 hours and be a success
As humans, we like stories like that.
There is another reason this erroneous view of career competitive advantages has become so popular. To understand this, think about the way mentoring is done today.
There is a massive industry, multiples of multi-billion dollars, with mentors who can help you build a career advantage. They usually offer you the 4 steps above and add in a few interesting ideas. If they do not offer you something solid, you will hit Google search and find another career coach.
The very same problem tarnishes the competitive advantage analyses of companies or businesses. We want to hear simple solutions, which fit our existing frame of thinking. So we filter out things that are too complex or which we cannot immediately replicate.
There is another reason why these simple and cute definitions of competitive advantage have become so popular. Humans have a tendency towards vanity and like hearing nice things about us.
That is why the 10,000 hours narrative is so catchy.
1 – It means you worked hard.
2 – Therefore, it means you did not just luck out.
3 – Therefore, it means you are not lazy.
4 – The number is large enough to require an effort but not so large that you give up without trying.
I am going to list some of the myths about competitive advantage related to your career or a company. They all apply to both.
Myth 1: Your strength and competitive advantage is the same thing
This is probably the most common misunderstanding about competitive advantage. What you are strong at is usually not your competitive advantage. Let me explain this in a simple way.
You are good at building financial models and explaining them. I agree with this. I have seen your work and you are good.
Yet, why are you good?
Is it because you have an ability to synthesize large amounts of data and explain it in concrete terms? Is it because you have the ability to take intangible concepts and reduce them to concrete numbers?
In this situation, you are strong at financial analyses because you are applying your competitive advantage here. The financial analysis is not your competitive advantage. My feeling is that this is your situation. In fact, you are probably applying your competitive advantage to the area which will not generate the optimal return on your effort. This is a key point.
People do this routinely. They do what makes them look good, versus focusing on what they should be good at. So, your strength is financial analysis because your competitive advantage allows you to be strong there.
The obvious question is, what if you applied this competitive advantage somewhere else where it gave you a higher return?
Myth 2: Competitive advantage is important
Actually, comparative advantage is important. It is more important than competitive advantage or absolute advantage. A few clever guys won the Nobel Prize for this concept to explain trade between nations.
To your career, it applies like this. Let’s assume you are the best person in the whole of Google at building financial models. Is that good for your career? Maybe. We cannot yet say. Though, we know it is good for Google.
We need to check one more thing.
So you have the best financial modeling skills at Google, but is that the skill that generates the greatest return for you? What if you had another skill, which was ranked second on your list of strong skills but created more advantage to you if you went ahead with this skill.
This is the principle of comparative advantage. You should not focus on what you are best at relative to everyone else, but what creates the most advantage to you, even if you are second best at it, or third best.
Most people are scared to walk away from an area where they have built a modicum of success because they fear losing momentum. It is also counter-intuitive and that scares them.
When you compare your competitive advantages to others on a value basis, then you are doing an analyses of comparative advantage.
Myth 3: What you like signals your competitive advantage
This is an easy trap to get into. Your competitive advantage sits underneath or supports your career. This is an important distinction. It is not what you do.
If you get up in the morning and think you will spend all your time on your competitive advantage because that will be your career, you are sadly mistaken. Your competitive advantage is not what you do, but how you organize yourself to accomplish what you set out to do.
We compound this misunderstanding by selecting what we like to do. We rationalize this by thinking that since we have to spend so much time on our competitive advantage, it might as well be what we like doing.
I agree your career must be built around what you enjoy doing, but the competitive advantage that propels that career may very well be difficult to sustain and not a whole lot of fun.
Let’s look at an example of this.
I read a story about the actress Naomi Watts who does not like stunt doubles for tough scenes since being away from the experience does not allow her to internalize the role. For one movie, she spent over 15 hours in the water at night shooting a scene and almost became ill. You can imagine how she needs to organize her life to achieve her goals.
The organization part touches on what is a competitive advantage but that is explained later.
The point is her great acting is an outcome of having this competitive advantage, and it is clearly not fun at times. The acting is fun, but honing the competitive advantage may not be.
The distinction here is that she is an actress and that is what she does. Her competitive advantage is not her physical features, voice, or skills, but the way she organizes her life to be a great actress.
Myth 4: Competitive advantages are easy to measure
This is directly linked to my comments earlier about how we, as relatively lazy and impatient people, like simple and quick answers. We hire consultants and say tell me the 5 reasons why my competitor is cleaning my clock in this market.
Now, unless we get the 5 reasons with clear targets, we get angry and replace the consultants. Certainly, some competitive advantages are probably easy to measure this way, but most are not easy to measure in any clear way.
If you are unlucky enough to have a competitive advantage that is easy to measure then it is easy to replicate. That is a sad fact. If your only skill is financial modeling and presenting, then I am guessing about 20% of every MBA intake in every school in the world is gunning to displace you at that skill and unless you have some unique way to improve it, someone will eventually succeed, and you will be displaced.
This alludes to the point that a sustainable career competitive advantage is rarely simple. If it was, it can be easily explained and easily copied. And that is not a competitive advantage worth investing in.
Michael Porter wrote an excellent piece about Southwest Airlines’ competitive advantage, which I agree with. It has nothing to do with metrics, because the airline has been benchmarked to death, and yet very few peers are catching up to it.
Myth 5: You can have more than one competitive advantage
Let’s explain why this is a myth. A company, like a person, must be organized around its competitive advantage: changing the structure, governance, investments, recruiting, training, marketing, supply chains etc., to sustain the competitive advantage.
If the company does a great job at this, everything is tightly wound together, synchronized and works well. If you have two competitive advantages, how do you organize one company to perfectly fit around them both? A company cannot be perfectly organized around two or three things. It can only be imperfectly organized around more than one thing.
Of course, this leads to the 6th myth that competitive advantage is a “thing.”
What is competitive advantage?
Competitive advantage is how a company, or a person like you, arranges, sometimes mediocre, things/behaviour/skills/assets/networks to produce an outstanding result. The competitive advantage is the system of organization, and not any one attribute.
That is the key insight.
This is not new. This is the basis of Michael Porter’s work. It is just complex to explain and does not fit into bite-size narratives. That is why many experienced consultants and executives do not explain or understand strategy this way.
Yet, it is a profound insight. Think of Southwest Airlines. Sure, you can steal their people, copy their pricing, use their slogans or even try to copy their turnaround times.
How do you copy an entire system of organizing and running things? To do that, a Southwest competitor would end up being a completely different company and most companies are not willing to go through that kind of effort. It is too much work, costs too much and most people are unwilling to go through such a wrenching change.
Understanding this about competitive advantage is crucial to your career.
First, it makes it really difficult for people to copy your advantage if it is built into a system. To do so, they would first need to understand your system of organizing things and second they would need to implement it. They are both terribly difficult to do.
Let’s go back to the Naomi Watts story. As an aspiring young actress, how do you figure out what Mrs. Watts does to have the ability to undertake such complex roles? Do you stalk her or hide under her bed? Let’s assume you did figure exactly what she did, could you replicate it?
Could you replicate all the messy and painful things you need to do on a daily basis to be that good?
Are you willing to go to bed every day at 9pm sharp to build your immune system? Are you willing to forgo endless party invites at posh nightclubs since the noise forces you to speak louder and hurts your throat? Are you willing to avoid alcohol for 11 months to prepare for a movie? Are you willing to lose 50 pounds and smoke 6 packets of cigarettes a day for 6 months to prepare for a movie?
The short answer is no. We like to assume competitive advantage is a single simple attribute like height, beauty or financial modeling because it is easy to attain.
Sports provided many examples of this concept.
How many times have we seen an average sports team topple the expected winner? Certainly, sometimes it is due to luck, weather or food poisoning. However, a good coach will know how to arrange average players to generate a result greater than the sum of the parts. That is a simple example of where the way the team is organized is the competitive advantage. No one player is the advantage.
How do you copy that? You cannot. You cannot even explain it easily. That competitive advantage has an enormous barrier to entry. The best you can do is hire away the coach to hope he can replicate the system in your own team.
There are numerous examples of this but the Miracle on Ice is close or the 1994 Rugby World Cup final. Individually weaker players were organized in a superior manner to beat teams with individually stronger players. It is not that the losing teams were organized in a weaker manner, it is that they made decisions to emphasize individual strengths.
In a famous study published in the Harvard Business Review about “stars” in banking it was found that the so-called stars analysts did far less, how shall we say it, stellar when they moved banks. That is because the receiving bank assumed the stars innate skills were their competitive advantage when it was actually the integrated banking support system in their previous employer that allowed them to be successful.
The stars underperformed since the receiving bank did not have the same system, the new hire was unable to replicate the system in the receiving bank, or the new hire could not fit into the new bank’s system. This is a classic example where the hiring bank assumed the competitive advantage of the rival bank was something as simple as one or two analysts.
The competitive advantage of the releasing bank was the way it organized itself which allowed its people to perform well, and that is what you saw in the market: star analysts due to the bank’s organization. Cause and effect were mixed up. The bank was not successful due to these few analysts, but rather the few analysts were successful due to the bank.
I think Malcolm Gladwell is a great writer, compelling prose, with interesting ideas. He certainly has the best hair of anyone I know.
Though, like my early advice, I would advise you to take the lessons offered by him with some caution. This is not because Gladwell is trying to mislead anyone at all. He most likely believes what he writes. The main reason is that to make his book accessible to everyone, he needed to simplify it, and the context to that simplification is important.
I have added them in below for you.
Even the loser practices 10,000 hours and possibly more. It is naïve to think that hard work and perseverance alone led to the triumph. This type of thinking makes you underestimate the competition. Do you really think no one was practicing as much, if not more, than Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods?
We do not hear about those who failed because they did not make it, but to assume they did not make it because they did not practice enough is misleading. Nike and Adidas cannot build multi-million dollar deals around Eric Menendez who practiced more than 10,000 hours but did not make it.
Never heard of Eric Menendez? You never heard of him because he did not make the pro’s, not because he did not try hard.
So be careful of picking those narratives that make you feel good, but offer no prescriptive solutions to success.
Humans are complex animals who like to hear warm and fuzzy things about us. We want to feel wonderful about what we did, how we did it, and why we did it. My simple question to you is this: sure you can spend 10,000 hours practicing something, but do you need to?
Try to be more efficient with your time.
This concept of 10,000 hours also feeds our desire to feel good about things in two other ways. First, it ignores the element of luck. Do you have any idea how many worthy people do not make it due to bad luck?
To assume hard work alone gets you there is to discount the element of luck. The phrase “chance favors the prepared mind” was invented to imply that, in spite of enormous good fortune, we did it alone. Usually, luck plays a big role and there is nothing you can do about it.
Second, this number ignores the entire interlocking system of actions and steps sitting behind the players. How did they arrange their lives, how did they work with their coaches, how did they choose events and sponsors?
If Tiger Woods had picked the wrong events and had a weak coach he could have burnt himself out and learned the wrong habits. It is more likely this complex system sitting under his career led him to the point where he had the time and possibility to reach the top if he practiced 10,000 hours.
Who is to say that is not what happened?
In other words, career success is like a 4 x 100 meter Olympic relay team. All the lights and cameras are flashing on the final step when the 4th guy ends the race. Yet, it could very well have been the 2nd or 3rd guy who made the crucial difference.
Linking this to the Tiger Woods analogy, we give too little attention to the competitive system he built because we never see it and it is not so glamorous. We like to focus on the flashy parts. To be frank, the media does this because you cannot sell shoes and hats by focusing on the grunt work.
But you are not trying to sell shoes, hats or marry au pairs, so focus on things that matter.
Kevin P. Coyne does an interesting case in season 2 of The Consulting Offer. It is the Spice Girls / Disney case. In this case, you need to determine the competitive advantage that led to the Spice Girls, Hannah Montana, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and the Jonas Brothers becoming breakout successes.
You will see all the candidates in the recording treating competitive advantage as a set of attributes with metrics, which must be met. They fail to think about the manner in which Disney has organized itself to create these stars. The competitive advantage of the Jonas Brothers is not the Jonas Brothers. It is the fact that they were a product of Disney, and without the Disney machine behind them, they probably not have been as successful.
1 – Think about the way you currently spend a typical day, week or month. Do you exercise, do you network, how do you improve your skills? Send me the notes if you need to so I can think about it. We will think about what is the best role for you to exploit this system you call “your life’s activities”. If you do not like the roles, then we need to change the system to allow you to be successful in the roles you want to pursue.
2 – From the above, think about what those activities could prepare you for. Is it just financial modeling? Sounds to me like you could do more.
3 – Of the list you generate in 2 above, let’s think about which create the most personal and financial value to you, assuming that is your goal.
4 – Ignore attributes like your Stanford MBA etc. Those are not competitive advantages in a real sense. Sure, it is better than someone with an MBA from a weaker school, but that is a purely paper advantage. Over time, if that person is better, she will beat you. The MBA designation from the top school is nice but there are substitutes in the market.
Either the goal or the system must be adjusted. Yet, it is not about the financial modeling. That sits in the middle. You are only talking and thinking about the task/career. The task/career you focus on is the means of deploying the system advantage you create to achieve your goals. It is a broader discussion that we need to have about the system and goals.
Finally, building this set of interlocking activities takes time. You may be slower at your career as you build this and fine-tune it, but you will accelerate faster once you perfect it. In other words, a career competitive advantage built on a systems view of competitive advantage leads to a slower start in one’s career but a better ending.
Keep me posted.
SPREAD THE WORD! Like this? Please share it.