Strategically Entering the Job Market: Going Beyond Your “Table Stakes”


In his book Strategic Learning, Willie Pietersen makes the point that winning strategies must go beyond “table stakes” with a winning proposition that meets the most important needs the customer/client has.  Table stakes are the basic services or products that are necessary to be in the game. In an article in Sunday’s New York Times on Best Buy’s remarkable turnaround in a market where retail chains are being devastated by Amazon, Hubert Joly, Best Buy’s CEO, parallels Pietersen’s point. In summarizing Best Buy’s strategy, Joly states that the goal is not to be lower priced than the competition but to offer “a very compelling set of customer promises with the assortment, the advice, the convenience, the service.” Whether or not Best Buy’s strategy will prove to be sustainable is an open question in a situation of eroding profit margins. Never the less, the points made by Pietersen and Joly contain interesting lessons for university students to pay attention to as they strategize about entering the job market.

A degree, skills, and experiences relevant to the industry or market sector one is attracted to are table stakes, not the core of a winning proposition. Not in today’s world. True, without the table stakes you can be in the game. However, what is important is how you can add value to the prospective employer through meeting the most important talent needs confronting the business or organization. This means:

  • Researching the industry, and identifying the strategic needs that are a primary concern to them.
  • Clearly communicating your understanding of those challenges and, equally important,
  • Speaking in a way that conveys how you contribute to addressing the challenges within the context of the functional sector with which you are interviewing. This can be the deal closer.

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, for example, when asked “What questions do you have?,” ask about what the current priorities are in terms of delivering to their customer chain, either internal or external to the organization. What are the expectations they have to meet? Engage with how these needs are being met, by making it clear you are focused on performance and positioning yourself as a potential contributor to what their customers want and need.   

A Need for Young Adults to Get Out from Behind the Plow and Start Shoveling

‘Snowplow parents’ overly involved in college students’ lives – Lifestyle – The Boston Globe.

We have all become familiar with the term helicopter parents. As the children of these parents have now grown out of adolescence into young adulthood (or perhaps into extended adolescence) a new category has emerged: snowplow parents. A week ago the Boston Globe ran the story: ‘Snowplow parents’ overly involved in college students’ lives describing how a father of a Boston University student, upset over his daughter’s A- final grade called the professor, then the department chair, and then the academic dean to complain. Residential Life staff receive calls from parents about minor roommate issues. BU, we should note, is not alone. Companies are occasionally having parents accompanying their son or daughter on interviews (and therefore significantly reducing the likelihood of their being hired).

Unfortunately this well meaning concern is counter-productive. An important developmental challenge, one that is best begun to be met during teenage years, is learning to navigate the socio-economic and political environment–learning from failures and disappointments as well as successes. Developing a sense of self direction, mental agility and political savvy is critical in today’s increasingly complex environment. These capabilities are developed through critically reflecting on lived experience. An important aspect of learning to live through life is beginning to shovel your own snow. Meanwhile, young people, if your parent asks why you didn’t (get an A, a particular job, score a goal, whatever) just say the answer is obvious; “you both should have married better, it’s obvious the problem is genetics.” :-) Maybe what we need is more reverse parenting and provocative humor can also be useful.

Integrating Analytics with Empathic Understanding

I was having a conversation with a doctoral candidate about her research using portraiture to study pioneer women leaders in her native culture; a post-colonial society traditionally male dominated. The student had not lived in her home country for more than 20 years. In describing her experience of conducting the interviews she expressed how the process made her feel her former culture in a way that she had lost. That experience was why she wanted to use portraiture rather than statistical analytics.  Her comments paralleled a conversation I had with a former student who remarked at how his children were being impacted by the teaching to the test and use of analytics in their school. Increasingly it was scores and indexes not connection with the world that was being developed. These conversations triggered a connection in my mind about the need for integrating analytics and qualitative analysis.

In today’s world analytics, which typically means numbers, are critical. However, they have to connect to the real world and connecting them to the real world requires empathic understanding. Such understanding only comes from lived experience and inquiring into what’s behind the numbers; further connecting the numbers to what’s meaningful in terms of making sense of a complicated or complex world.  And even as analytics have come to dominate the discourse in business and education the need for connectedness in using analytics is critical.

This is very observable in the findings of a study recently published by the Conference Board that I did with Dr. Amy Lui Abel, Strategic Talent Management: Where We Need to Go.  Linking Talent Management with results through rigorous analytics was essential. Equally, essential were developing social capital across the organization through bridging global and local needs and HR with executives. Understanding the organizational culture and the variations across the global context was critical. While the exemplar Chief Talent Officers didn’t refer to ‘qualitative’ it was clear that observation, listening, and learning the culture was important. In the words of one “How I get intel is probably a state of competency. I have relationship capital. I’m having lunch with people but [I’m] asking a certain number of questions. It is important to be a connector.” One advantage of field research is it provides the competencies for being a connector. One needs both skills sets; they complement each other.

Why Learning Through is Essential for Sustainable Strategic Positioning

Business, politics and war: Why a strategy is not a plan | The Economist.

In a series of recent integrative literature reviews that incorporate complexity theory, learning through experience, and adult development theory, Dr. Aliki Nicolaides of the University of Georgia, and I argue for educational practices that foster an ability for thinking strategically in today’s socio-economic environment. The need for applying educative frameworks that facilitate and stretch the capacity of adults to make meaning and choices for timely action under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity is further reinforced by a book review of “Strategy: A History, by Lawrence Freedman” in last weeks The Economist “Why a Strategy is not a Plan.”  In this review it becomes clear that even:

A run of success…does not mean you will be on top forever.  Strategy…is really about trying to work out how to get from one stage to another… A strategy that starts with objectives and works backward is one that is likely to fail.

The review concludes with the observation that:

Although it is usually better to have some kind of strategy than not, unless you are prepared to adapt it as circumstances change it is unlikely to do you much good.

The points made in the review underlie the way strategy development is a process that requires continuous learning—a kind of learning targeted toward preparing one for agility.

Developing strategy under conditions of high uncertainty involves engaging in a learning process. Paradoxically, under conditions of rapid change and uncertainty, experience (especially successful experience) is a double edge sword. Experience is valuable, but also blocks from reaching new insight.

Here are three critical questions to be continuously asking:

1. What, specifically, made this work successful so far in this context and     how might emerging trends change the context?

2.  What new uncertainties exist and what scenarios and options might emerge?

The old saying “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” leads to the third question:

3.  How can we break our own success?

In today’s world “when it’s broke, it’s often too late to fix it.” Strategic learning practices, when well used, help answer all three questions.

Secession in modern America – CBS News Video


Secession in modern America – CBS News Video.

An interesting segment on this past Sunday’s edition of CBS Sunday Morning focuses on the movement in Northern California and Colorado for succession from their state. In September the Modoc County Board of Supervisors voted to leave the State of California. 66% of residents polled in a neighboring county are supportive of their Board making a similar move. This Tuesday, voters in 11 counties in Northern Colorado will vote on a resolution letting their County Commissioners explore breaking away from the State. Of course this is not the first time such movements occurred in the U.S., although the first since 1941. Where this will actually go, of course, is a very open question: “Peter out”; gain strength, become an on-going narrative in the political discourse?

One lens through which to ponder this is the question: “What are the consequences for a segmented society that is increasingly inter-connected both physically (i.e. mixing populations) and through social media?” The dynamics in play here are the values and economic interests of rural America reacting to the growing influence of the populations in the big cities. The positions conservatives push back against are what they experience as imposed liberal values. In the case of Colorado, liberalization of marijuana laws, gay marriage, and gun control laws are mentioned by a supporter as are economic interests.

It should be said that this broad classification is grossly over simplified. For example, not all residents in either rural or urban communities agree. Also, super imposed on the rural–urban divide are economic divisions driving power structures (the 1% percent narrative for example). So called news networks (CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc.) further divide society even as the inter-connectedness intensifies between segments at the macro-level of self-interests between parties.

As segmented societies become increasingly inter-connected, there are global consequences. While substantial critical differences exist, conflicts in the Middle East, Southern Africa, and Asia as well as parts of South America reflect the impact of intensifying connections.

What are the learning challenges as we confront a world in which paradox and change are the new normal?

The Increasing Need for Learning through Ambiguity

Two different articles in the New York Times, 10/29/13 really demonstrate how technology increasingly adds to the complexity of policy decision making and requires the ability to deal with blurring, ambiguous situations for political discussions. One is the issue of teachers and principals watching students on the internet (Warily, Schools Watch Students On the Internet) and various social media sites for inappropriate, hazing behavior. Leaving school no longer provides separation from the impact of others. Where does responsibility for student behavior that begins in school and continues virtually throughout remaining day lie. The lines between school interaction, social, and private life are blurring and inter-penetrating.

The furor over the spying on allies including their personal communications is another example (Obama May Ban Spying on Heads of Allied States). Spying always occurred but connections were not 24/7 and virtually traceable. More blurring lines; who is an ally, when does that shift? In both cases rules and policies become less clear as the various spaces of the life-world increasingly connect and feedback and consequences interact across spaces. When acting in these interconnecting spaces how does one act ethically?  Learning through paradox and dialogue is a competency that increasingly needs development, not just for “leaders” but for everyone. The ultimate paradox is that at same time technical academic skills are needed to function in the world, so is the ability to think critically even as the parameters one is thinking critical about change. This is not a problem that can be solved by teaching to the test. 

Air War in Kosovo Seen as Precedent in Possible Response to Syria Chemical Attack –

Air War in Kosovo Seen as Precedent in Possible Response to Syria Chemical Attack –

The article in Saturday’s NY Times is a classic example of how strategic discussions unfold as discussed in Gavitte & Rivikin’s 2005 Harvard Business Review article “How Strategists Really Think: Tapping the Power of Analogy”—not only in business, but in terms of international interventions as well. Not discussed in the NY Times article is the critical use of mapping the analogy being used–What is similar, and more important, what is not similar or is critically different between the new situation? Gavitte & Rivikin point out that the tendency for advocates is to naturally focus on the similarities.

Once the mapping is complete, what is equally important is:

  • Assessing what are the critical unknowns, what is being assumed, vs. what is known.
  • Considering the critical unknowns—asking what different scenarios might unfold, what options they offer, and how much risk and investment are we willing to make.
  • Framing the intentional goals being pursued. Are they possible?

To think further about mapping both the analogies being used and possible scenarios in this case just check out Thomas Friedman’s column in the Sunday Times Sunday Review section. Listen to how our political representatives are discussing the policy arguments.

In today’s world of constant change being able to think strategically be it around personal career choices, organizational related options, or participating in broader policy discussions is a critical skill set. Developing this skill set in our society is a major adult learning and educational challenge. Complexity doesn’t follow ideological reasoning.