September 19, 2011

Your Practical, Professional Passion

You are a producer in an economic market called the labor market. To get ahead, you need to decide to be a market maker, not a market taker.

Peter Gray ’97

As an executive recruiter, I continue to receive e-mails telling me that the urge to change careers is on the minds of many. For example:

Dear Peter,

I’m not sure what the next step in my career should be. The problem is that I feel as uncertain as I did at the outset, which is not a good thing given that I am mid-career and looking for a major opportunity. I know I like to manage people and have always successfully done this, and that I would rather do international work, but that’s all I’m sure about. I don’t know what function I would be good at or even which industries I could position myself for, since most of my time has been in one area (financial services). What concrete steps do you think I can take to answer these questions and get some focus?

My thinking is that you should try to define your job and career search in a way that is deep and narrow, not shallow and broad. This may sound like strange advice, considering how open you are to new directions. But your challenge is that once you’re past entry level, employers want you for what you’ve done, not for what you want to do. They’ll hire you and even pay a premium for your track record of success in their specific area of need, but not for your ability to learn new skills and subject matter.

So, before you look outward for jobs, look inward and find your PPP: your “practical professional passion.” Your PPP needs to meet two criteria: It needs to be interesting and exciting enough that you can commit your work to it; and it needs to be something you can quickly establish professional credibility in based on your work experience.

Once in mid-career, it’s not easy to build professional credibility in a new area. That’s why I encourage you to think about new career directions in an area related to what you’ve done before.

Look Closely First

Look near before you look far, recalling Dorothy’s advice from The Wizard of Oz: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!”

To digress from vintage Hollywood, I once had a microeconomics professor who explained the difference between “market takers” and “market makers.” A market taker is a producer offering a commodity good in a competitive environment. Even hardworking market takers can barely generate an economic return on their output, because they can’t command a price premium. A market maker, meanwhile, is a producer of a scarce or unique good that others can’t easily imitate. Market makers can generate great economic returns, because they can price their goods at whatever the demand will bear. How does a staple economics lesson apply to your career change goals? Simple. You are a producer in an economic market called the labor market. To get ahead, you need to decide to be a market maker, not a market taker.

Define Your Abilities

Don’t define yourself as a generalist who could work anywhere. That's market taking. Instead, figure out what you can offer that is exciting enough to you that you want to pursue it in depth, and you could position yourself as an expert. Find the business sectors that have a need for it. Then focus on educating yourself and networking to build up your knowledge and credibility in that area. Seek out the places where they are working on that for learning and networking — whether they show job openings or not.

Peter Gray ’97 is the head of executive recruiting at QTI Professional Staffing in Madison, WI. If you have a question or idea for a future column, contact him at

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