How to Manage Your Career: Treat It Like a Business

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Only the Paranoid Survive" by Andrew S. Grove. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have changes in your industry impacted your career? Have your opportunities changed, even though you haven’t?

In Only the Paranoid Survive, Andrew Grove discusses strategic inflection points—market disruptions that demand a response from your business. He also explains that your own career will face strategic inflection points, bringing major change down to a personal level.

Read more for Grove’s advice on how to manage your career and ride the waves of change.

How to Manage Your Career

Grove’s book teaches you how to prepare for, recognize, and respond to your industry’s next big disruption. Grove encourages you to think of these disruptions, not as challenges to endure, but as opportunities for reinvention. His advice may help you not only survive a strategic inflection point but come out stronger on the other side. After all, Intel not only survived the memory chip crisis of the 1980s; they also went on to become global leaders in the microprocessor industry.

How can Grove’s principles be turned into advice on how to manage your career? Not all of us are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, nor will we all be likely to face a full industry upheaval. Grove argues you can use his advice in facing a much more common situation: a strategic inflection point in your career. This happens when changes in the business environment reshape your career opportunities. For example, companies in your industry may start outsourcing your role to contractors, or a new technology could make your skills obsolete.

(Shortform note: Market research shows that individual employees may actually be more vulnerable to market disruptions than the companies they work for because they are much more replaceable. It takes years of work and education for an employee to develop their  skills—whereas hiring new employees with updated skills can happen in months, if not weeks.) 

Grove advises you to think of your career as a personal business: Your customer is your employer, and your product is the value your skills and work ethic bring to the company. This mindset allows you to apply Grove’s advice on overcoming strategic inflection points to your personal career. There are four clear ways that this advice translates:

  1. The six market forces shape the kinds of companies that can hire you. Industries that are growing will be eager to take on new employees and may offer a longer career path. Shrinking industries will have fewer opportunities and may offer less longevity.
  2. Preparation and flexibility will be critical to navigating disruptions in your industry. Developing transferable skills that can travel from role to role will give you something to pivot to if you see a roadblock in your career. 
  3. Stay alert to potential disruptions in your industry. Catching a problem before it blows up will give you more time to consider a new direction and prepare.
  4. Lastly, if you’re considering a career switch, Grove suggests you explore your options by debating the question with a sympathetic colleague who may be able to fill in your blind spots. Finding someone to push back on your ideas may help clarify whether a career change will really improve your life or if the grass just looks greener on the other side.
How to Research Your Industry’s Volatility If You’re Not a CEO

Grove advises business leaders to look out for potential market disruptions by paying attention to the six forces that shape their business environment. Yet this advice may be harder to apply personally. While CEOs of Fortune 500 companies can hire a research team to audit their environment, for you, keeping track of trends in all six forces would become a full-time job.

Fortunately, there are other ways of learning about your industry’s exposure to volatility. Relying on published market research can give you a snapshot of how prepared you should be to switch careers without hiring your own research team. Researchers have developed ranking systems to assess an industry’s potential for disruption.

They seek out information such as the cost of entry for new companies, the interconnectedness with other industries, and the potential for technological change. They then use this information to place industries in a matrix along two axes: current potential for disruption and future potential for disruption. This matrix can give you a basic understanding of whether you should start preparing for disruption—and if a disruption were to happen, where you’d go. 
Staying Prepared for Your Next Career Move

One significant way to stay prepared for a potential career switch is keeping an updated skill set. A strong skill set is neither too specialized—which risks becoming obsolete if your role is no longer needed—nor too generalized—which risks a loss of competitive advantage in highly technical fields. Business experts recommend three strategies to develop a skill set that keeps you adequately prepared for your next career inflection point.

1. Never stop learning. Think of learning as a lifelong process—professional development continues throughout your entire career.

2. Create a list of your skills. Creating a list of what you do best can serve you in three distinct ways. First, it will help you identify gaps in your current skill set and areas for improvement. Second, it will make it easier to consider other careers where you would be a good fit. A list of your skills can make it simple to match with job descriptions as you explore other possibilities. Third, it might provide a boost of confidence. You’re likely more skilled than you realize—seeing everything you’re good at provides a positive reminder of this. This boost can help you overcome fear and self-doubt that often happen when switching careers.

3. Focus on skills you can develop in your current organization. It’s easy to stretch yourself thin by piling “skill builders” such as extra schooling, coaching, or development seminars on top of your job. By finding opportunities to practice your desired skills right within your organization, you can cut back on these external time drains. 

Exercise: Plan for Your Own Career Inflection Point 

Grove talks about the importance of looking ahead and planning for market disruptions in your own career. In this exercise, we’ll walk you through a guided reflection on preparing for your next career inflection point.

  1. Choose an industry, either the one you currently work in or one you would someday like to work in. Take some time to reflect on a trend that is changing the industry. What impact can you imagine this will have?
  2. Speculate on who you think will be the winners and losers of this change. Which kinds of employees and/or companies will be in a better position to take advantage of this change? Who might be positioned to become less relevant in the industry?
  3. Lastly, brainstorm a list of at least three things you could do to position yourself on the winning side of this trend before it hits. Are there skills you would need to develop that will help you in the future? Is it time to start planning a career switch? What can you do today that would put you in a better position for this transition?
How to Manage Your Career: Treat It Like a Business

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Andrew S. Grove's "Only the Paranoid Survive" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Only the Paranoid Survive summary:

  • How to adapt and survive as a business in a changing industry
  • How the CEO of Intel lead the company through a time of crisis
  • How to know when your company needs to pivot

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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