Thursday, February 19, 2015

Some thoughts on career management for the New Year !

Happy new year of the Goat !

Gong Xi Fatt Cai !

The financial bloggers were goading me to write something pretty hardcore about Confucius today, but I decided to hold it off until a few weeks later as I think I've got something better to share today.

As it turns out, I was quite fortunate to be exposed to some ideas when SMU conducted its networking sessions for the folks in the JD Program. My first experience was with a tape recording of Davinder Singh's talk and I benefitted immensely from the only tip I got from him which was to read the Economist.

Last week was my first networking student as a law student. My first networking session was with a law firm called TSMP, a pretty awesome looking setup at 6 Battery Road. Once again I was fortunate enough to be exposed to a very short discussion with their head honcho Thio Shen Yi which was also very insightful and very applicable to folks in other industries.

The idea he shared briefly with Law students is that there generally three kinds of workers :

Grinders - These guys do the heavy lifting and analysis in any organisation.
Minders - These guys handle the grinders and they get them to work towards a common goal.
Finders - These guys are the rainmakers who bring business to the company.

Thio's central idea is that his workers start out as grinders before they are ready to become minders, but the guys who ultimately make partners have to be the kind of the workers who are finders. These people develop the core business and sustain the other workers in the business. Naturally, I asked him how can a minder develope the skills to become finders, to which he said that the trick to becoming a finder is to learn to make friends.

I was reflecting about the usefulness of the Grinder-Finder-Minder model and realise that it's a powerful way to look at anyone's career. It also explains why so many tech workers in their forties start to struggle with maintaining a good career.

Here are some on my insights :

a) Jobs which pay grinders well are rare.

Why does your stupid boss who worked in the mainframe era earn more than you even when you know so much about Ruby on Rails or functional programming ? Good paying jobs for grinders are rare because a grinder can at best be an optimal producer. A good minder who can squeeze 10% more work from his grinders can be worth 10 engineers if he leads a a team of 100 men.

Engineering does not pays grinders well. And unless you work a great MNC or a consulting firm like Accenture, it does not have a structured process to turn you into a minder. This explains why the smartest engineers try to do an MBA as quickly as they can.

Rare exceptions do exists : Specialist doctors like plastic surgeons are highly paid grinders.

b) Most knowledge workers typically start as Grinders but need to evolve to sustain their success.

Successful career management is not about looking at problems at work, which can your minder manager very happy, but to find ways to evolve into a minder role. The technology industry is full of grinder engineers who are very competent with machines and technology and fail to develop the EQ and work coordination skills to move into a supervisory role.

This is the essence of why an engineering career fails - you become so confident in your problem solving skills but lack the communication skills to project confidence and lead a team of grinders.

When you reach your 40s, the massive paradigm shifts in IT makes your grinding skills obsolete, so you either run to the government agencies if you have a decent Honours degree or pick up a taxi license otherwise. This sad career tragedy is played out on all engineers I bet there's one in your family.

c) Being a Minder is unsustainable unless you can transform into a Finder.

While being minder is better than a being a grinder, it comes with many disadvantages too. Management jobs are highly political in nature and you are always fighting for resources. Paradigm shifts are slower but typically result in massive restructuring exercises like IBM's Project Chrome.

Another problem is the isolated nature of a minder's domain expertise. A great manager in an organization has gathered a lot of social capital within one organisation. There is no guarantee that this capital can be retained, when the manager gets promoted, moves to a new department or a new company. Most minders are not particularly mobile in their careers and stuck to the organizations they work for.

Minder managers don't get it easier as well. I've seen so many management career when an executive from a tech firm jump into the government and can't carry their social capital with them and drastically under-perform the folks who have been with the agencies all their lives.

d) Being a finder is a talent and tied to your social economic status

Actually, I would have really appreciated a spirited debate with Thio Shen Yi over this issue.

IMHO, being a finder is not as simple as making friends as described by Shen Yi. It is a complicated talent to be at the right place at the right time. A consummate finder does not need to lift a finger if he has a taste for fine wine, art, and can operate in a network of individuals who may have legal work for him.

This level of ease and cultural sophistication is not cultivated within our school system although SMU's career office tries hard to instil this in its graduates. There is no PSLE subject called Charisma, English Literature may help as an O level subject but it's largely incidental and based on how much you apply yourself. An ACS kid can exude this cultural sophistication even if he gets 25 point for his O levels. A Bukit Batok Secondary school student who has hawker parents will not even know what a Cabernet Savignon even if he gets 6 points.

Making matters harder is that the great schools like ACS, RI and HCI have great alumni movements which dramatically increase the social capital of any knowledge worker.

If I were a business man, I would choose someone from such a network to be my finder to maximise my revenue earning potential. This practically locks B-Graders like me to be at best a Minder even if I work my butt out.

I have a small dream, at least for the industry which I am trying to get into in a few years time.

I think Law School has become so elite that finding someone with no ties to the Raffles, ACS or Chinese High mega-brands is so rare that it may even be possible to start a small association or sub-division for mutual benefit, it would be like a small gathering to just shore up our social capital and find businesses for each other.  ( We'll be like the NTUC Fair Price housebrands who have to fight against P&G and Unilever in the supermarkets everyday ! )

Maybe some of us will get that shot to become a finder.


  1. Hello Christopher,

    It was a pleasure to meet you in person and I must say you are the more "cerebral" ones out there ;)

    And you singing for us is right up my alley!

    Like I've said during our meeting, I will in the wings ready to poke you if you ever make fun of Confucius again.

    Now that's ironic when I'm not a big fan of Confucius myself - me being a 2nd born and a "free spirit" and all... LOL!

    But I'm having my Chinese renaissance so let's have fun!

  2. Entrepreneurs need to be finders, or they are forced by circumstances.

    While I believe grinders and minders need domain expertise, finders do not. That means finders tend to be street smart rather than book smart.

    But of course, being both street and book smart adds to the probability of success.

  3. Chris,

    I have a different view to your point 3 where you feel being a "finder" is tied to our economic status.

    (Psst, are you blaming your parents?)

    I guess you are looking at this issue from the outside in.

    I take the inside out approach since I am a salesman.

    It's the same debate on whether being a successful salesperson is born or trained.

    So goes for the question can entrepreneurship be trained ;)

    I think I'll write a blog post on it!

    (After CNY lah! Now I only post happy saccharine posts. Must respect culture OK?)

  4. SMOL,

    I will play with you when your article comes out.

    Always curious about how to build a sales career !


  5. Ah, so being a finder for you requires cultural capital, something that the nouveau riche cannot acquire in the time span they took to acquire wealth.

    Actually it's a matter of finding the right cultural capital for the clients you're selling to. If you're selling italian tiles to ah beng contractors, having the kind of cultural capital that works if you're a property salesmen might not work that well.