Career Management: “The Decision”

(Phil’s, not LeBron’s)

3AM and I can’t sleep. Restless. Can’t make up my mind. Maybe I can journal it out. Write. Keep writing. It’s becoming clearer, limited “upside” and big “downside” personally. Don’t take it, stay where you are.

That’s where I was about a month ago at 6:30am the day before I had to decide whether to accept a new role at Carlson. Fast forward to today and I’m actually working on my transition into the new role. So how did that happen?

The transition in question has me moving from my current teaching job as Director of the Consulting Enterprise into a new leadership role as an Assistant Dean for MBA Programs at the Carlson School of Management. I thought it might be interesting to apply a little scrutiny to my decision process. Since I give a lot of advice, let’s see if my own choices are consistent with what I preach.


My old job has been a perfect (for me) mix of teaching, coaching and consulting with the added plus of relative flexibility and autonomy in how I get them done. When I left 3M to return to Carlson in 2008 it was to pursue my passion while also restoring some balance to my life. (I’ve reflected on that decision a bit here and won’t repeat myself here.) Mission accomplished! I love my role and can honestly say that I’ve never woken up and not wanted to go into work. I’m sure that sounds a little rosy, but it’s true. So why would you mess that up?


Well, a few reasons. I’ll start with a great question a dear friend asked me as I was agonizing over whether to take the position. It was simple; “Why did you apply in the first place?”

Because at the time I thought or believed:

1)    I could have impact

Meaning and a sense of fulfillment matter a lot to me. But I was already getting that from my faculty gig. In just the last week, I’ve had meetings with 3-4 current or former students who discussed what they learned from their Enterprise experience and how it was helping them. That’s like a (good) drug for me. But the impact is 1:1 and doesn’t scale. A major question I’ve had for years is “how good can we be?” as a program. I feel a need to find out and to see if I can help influence the result.

2)    Our programs are excellent

I really believe we have a special set of programs. I wouldn’t have given up my comfy and fulfilling role if I didn’t believe in our offerings and the team delivering them. We have great staff and innovative curriculum. We’re also in a tremendous business community. So the program side was a green light for me.

3)    The door would only open once at Carlson

In an industry as tight as academia, these opportunities only open up so often. So when they do, you either jump on board or miss the train. So I chose to jump. Would a year later have been preferable? Maybe. But I don’t agonize too much over counter-factuals. The door opened when it opened. An important consideration was how uninterested I am in a similar job at another institution. We live in the Twin Cities and I am deeply tied to Carlson. So this really was a “unique” opportunity. I often coach folks to make decisions and learn from action. Sitting still isn’t how that happens.

4)    I was ready for/needed a change on a few fronts

  • Leadership opportunity – Leading as faculty is different than leading an organization. I’ve done both, but I’ve been faculty for almost 5 years now. My emotional/intellectual well seems to have two different sections that are pretty distinct. The first part is a teacher and mentor who really likes to focus on helping others do their best. The other part seeks leadership roles in a more competitive environment. Both are important and I seem to have a pattern of moving back and forth (History PhD program>MBA>management consulting>teaching>3M SBD>3M Business Management>teaching>academic leadership). It was time for the pendulum to swing back.
  • Need for competition & pressure – As “chill” as I like to act sometimes, there’s a deeply competitive part of my personality. It needs to be let out and run occasionally or it gets itchy. I love our school and think we can make some waves in our market. I want to be a part of that for a while.
  • Need for pressure/external motivation – I get more focused and productive when put under more external pressure to deliver. I’ve been puttering on some projects (book, start-up) for 2 years without making much headway. There’s never really a deadline. Well, now I’m a lot busier and will have to clearly prioritize and step it up. That usually helps me.
  • Team – As wonderful as my current role is, I’m a sole proprietor. My entire team turns over every year. I miss being part of a larger organization and am looking forward to having a consistent work unit to take on challenges and grow with. A shared struggle is more fun than a solo one.
  • Career progression – I am not without ambition and this was a clear career building opportunity.
  • Change of scenery – 4.5 years in the Consulting Enterprise is the longest I’ve had any single role. I’m getting less restless than I used to be, but I still like change and motion. My #2 StrengthsFinder theme is “Learner”. People like me tend to need “new scenery” fairly regularly to keep the learning/discovery muscle working. That’s definitely where I am right now.

5)    Minimizing regrets

In the end, would I feel worse if I passed on the opportunity or gave up my awesome job? It seemed like passing up the opportunity, for all the reasons listed above, would be way worse looking back. Here are some older thoughts on that as well.

6)    Some things you just need to go find out

I say this a lot. It’s true.

These were what persuaded me in the end. Weighing on the other side were the 1) deep satisfaction I take in teaching and mentoring, 2) the great lifestyle I have right now and 3) the tremendous flexibility I have to follow my own interests.

As I though these through, I reached a few conclusions:

1)    Teaching – I think I will take as much (though different) satisfaction in my new role and won’t have to completely give up teaching. My scope of students will broaden, but I will be engaged with students day-to-day.

2)    Lifestyle – I will work hard to maintain balance, but the reality is I’m heading back to a “real” job. There will be more regular deadlines and targets as well as administrative responsibilities. But I’ve done this before. I’m actually looking forward to some of the routine.

3)    Flexibility – By my own assessment, I haven’t done all that much with it, so not a huge net loss. Maybe being busier will drive the above mentioned productivity enhancement. I would also say that I will maintain a degree of flexibility as my personal interests overlap quite a bit with my job.

How Did I Get Here? “Alternate Realities”

One of the most important career concepts I try to emphasize is the need to constantly imagine and explore “alternate realities”. By this I mean “given where you are, what are 3-4 potential paths or next steps you’d like to explore?”, then creating low investment experiments to try things on. Think of it as purposeful dabbling. I talk about it in an old post here.

So, do I eat my own cooking?

My quick answer is “Yes”. I do actually think this way and practice what I preach. When I came back to Carlson, a potential leadership role was always on my radar. Not as a goal, but as a possible goal; as was going back to corporate, running my own consulting shop and exploring a few other ideas.

This posed a few big questions:

  • What skills and knowledge does an Assistant Dean need?
  • What does each set of stakeholders really care about?
  • How can I engage in building the capabilities and knowledge I lack?
  • How can I create the perception that I could be a strong candidate?
  • Would I even want the role?

So I set about systematically addressing each. (And yes, at this point in my life I really was this clear about it from the beginning.) Here is a list of stuff I did to explore. Note that all of these on their own were relatively low effort, high impact learning opportunities.

  • Taught in multiple programs (MBA, Undergraduate, executive education) and formats (small group/project based, large lecture based, on-line) to better understand what we actually do.
  • Served on multiple search committees, notably in areas I was trying to learn about.
  • Actively sought out and supported our development and corporate relations efforts.
  • Met with school leadership and had career mentoring discussions.
  • Represented the school externally at a number of prominent academic conventions.
  • Served on curriculum committees.
  • Drank a lot of coffee with diverse set of colleagues to learn their stories and interests.
  • Tried to demonstrate both a love for our students and alumni while balancing the need to meet economic goals to build our programs (ie: understanding that margin = mission).

I won’t hash out 4+ years of details. The point is I actually was on a continuous personal experiment. At any time I had several little things going on that were helping to create at least the possibility of attaining a leadership role if one opened up while also exploring whether I would want it and thought I could be successful.


I’d offer 3 specific takeaways:

1)    Develop and explore several career paths. Things don’t “just happen” and you can make your own luck (to a point). The more purposeful you are, while being flexible and understanding that things may turn out differently than you expected, the more likely you are to create a new reality for yourself.

2)    Make choices. Be proactive. I’d rather make an error of “commission” than one of “omission”. My best learning has happened moving forward. Not every choice works out the way you expect. But you learn and move on. The “risk’ is usually lower than it seems.

3)    Have a trusted group of advisors. It’s critical to have someone who knows you a bit and whom you respect to challenge your thinking. I’ve talked about this before and believe it even more than I used to. Without some thoughtful reflection with friends, I might have reached a different decision.

I get asked for a lot of advice. But mentors don’t come “wise” out of the box. Every one lives their life and builds “scar tissue” from the good, the bad and the ugly of their choices. I’m still writing my path and don’t have all the answers. But I do try to model what I believe and continue to try to learn and adapt.

I hope sharing helps someone else along the way.

PS – I debated a LeBron “The Decision” theme, but couldn’t keep a straight face. “Not one, Not two…” I also didn’t think ESPN would offer me an hour of air time.

3 thoughts on “Career Management: “The Decision”

  1. Wow Phil, what a powerful and USEFUL post. I don’t know how I stumbled on this just today, but it couldn’t be more timely. You’ve provided a great framework to make a thoughtful decision that I really need to make now. I can try to make it analytically now instead of emotionally. Thanks for sharing and being so very honest. It is appreciated.

    • Glad it was useful. i try to “leave it all out there”…the good the bad and the ugly 🙂

      Hope all’s well.

  2. Thanks for having the comment section open for an article like this. It allows others to get points across that might benefit fellow readers. Nice to see you respect others opinions by letting them have a voice.

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