Walk through the paint-chipped double doors and down the tiled hallway, hang a right, and there’s the lab. Stacked on tables are wire racks holding small vials shaped like milk bottles. Each vial, stoppered with cotton, contains a smear of molasses mixed with cornmeal. In a few days, wormy new life will squirm inside: maggots.
This lab at Bowling Green State University, in Bowling Green, Ohio, is one of the largest suppliers of a crucial resource for genetic scientific research: fruit flies, aka drosophila. Each year, Bowling Green’s National Drosophila Species Resource Center ships millions of the flies to researchers worldwide. What makes the lowly fruit fly the belle of the genetic research ball? They live fast. Flies blitz through a full life cycle – from egghood to maggothood to parenthood – in about 20 to 30 days. A researcher needs just a few months to study generations of fruit flies. Such research, moreover, has yielded some pretty amazing discoveries about humans, whose genes are startlingly similar to the fly’s genes.
We at Fast Company decided to conduct our own experiment. We wondered whether there’s a human equivalent of drosophila in the world of work – people who catch on quicker and accomplish more than the rest of us; people who cycle through projects and jobs at warp speed, adding new skills by the score to their portfolios. After our own thorough (though admittedly less-than-scientific) research, we think we’ve found them. Check out our lab reports, and you’ll find that these rapidly evolving creatures disprove some of the standard hypotheses about managing your life’s work.
Hypothesis: A demotion is acutely toxic to your career.
Subject: Steve Tobak, 41, vice president of corporate marketing and communications at National Semiconductor Corp. in Santa Clara, California
Career DNA: Tobak has lived multiple lives during his 18-year career. He morphed from an engineer into a salesman, then into a manager, and then again into a marketer. He’s worked for six companies during that time, relentlessly building new skills to beef up his portfolio. Past employers have included Cyrix Corp., NEC, and Texas Instruments. But Tobak says that smart career management isn’t about moving often – it’s about moving wisely.
“If you’re a candidate for the executive ranks, a smart company will move you all over the organization, so you’ll learn the diverse set of skills that will prepare you to lead,” he says. “I liked that idea of grooming – but I wanted to learn faster than a single company would let me.”
Observation: In 1990, Tobak hopped several rungs down the career ladder. He left his job as a marketing director at United Silicon Structures, a chip manufacturer, where he had called the shots for both product development and promotion, to become a solo salesman for Competitive Technology Inc., a Costa Mesa, California-based company that represents chip makers. At first, he thought that Competitive Technology’s offer was lame. Why give up $20,000 worth of stock and a six-figure salary for a straight- commission job?
“I wondered what my mom would think of me throwing out my master’s degree in engineering and 10 years of management experience to become a salesman,” he recalls. “It was a step down, but it was a step that I needed to take. I was clueless about how to handle people in a sales environment. And I realized that selling is a huge part of what any successful executive does.”
In a previous job, at NEC, Tobak had worked from a large corner office. With Competitive Technology, he had to cram his files, briefcase, and laptop into the backseat of his Toyota Supra Turbo. He started in a brand-new territory – South Bay in LA – selling memory chips, logic chips, sockets, and connectors. He spent painstaking hours constructing org charts in his notebooks, pinpointing the engineers who made design and component decisions for his client companies. He schmoozed receptionists so that he could score copies of confidential internal phone lists. And he took on a salesman’s toughest job: cold calling
“I got down on my knees and begged when I had to,” Tobak says. And he loved it. Why? Because he finally learned how to sell.
Results: After 10 months on the job, Tobak was booking close to $1 million in business per quarter. Two months later, he underwent another metamorphosis: He left Competitive Technology to become head of worldwide OEM sales for Stac Electronics Inc., a startup company that sold data-compression components and software. The new gig promised more responsibility and visibility. He hired and trained a global sales force, and was a player on the executive team that led the company through a successful IPO a year later.
Tobak says that he put knowledge from his selling days to work at Stac – and at every company he’s signed on with since. “Selling taught me the importance of building relationships,” he says. “I never start a meeting with business. I always start with something personal.”
Conclusion: A “demotion” can be a catalyst for career advancement. “Sometimes it’s essential to take a step back and pick up a major skill before shooting to the next level,” Tobak says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t taken that sales job.”
Coordinates: SteveTobak, email@example.com
Hypothesis: The shortest distance between where you are and where you want to go is a straight line.
Subject: Brenda Williams, 41, a founding partner of the Lab, a Chicago-based subsidiary of advertising giant Leo Burnett Co. The venture is an eclectic, problem-solving “laboratory” where companies such as Walt Disney World Corp., Kellogg’s, and McDonald’s thrash out creative approaches to name-branding and strategizing, with help from futurists, artists, anthropologists, and other unlikely marketing consultants.
Career DNA: Williams has built her career by making unconventional (some might say “wrongheaded”) choices. First she gave up a promising job as a medical assistant with a group practice in Denver, Colorado, because the world of sutures and shots was just too darn conventional. “There’s only one way to practice medicine, and that’s the right way,” says Williams. “If you experiment, you’ll kill someone.” To stave off boredom, she took a job as an arts coordinator for the Denver public-school system while she worked her way to a second degree – in communications and psychology – at the University of Colorado.
She graduated in 1984 and moved to Atlanta – without a job and without a place to live – after falling in love with the city during a New Year’s Eve visit. “Atlanta seemed like it was still evolving,” she recalls. “Unlike New York, it wasn’t cooked yet. I felt that I was still under construction – and so was Atlanta.” She lucked into a job as a researcher for McKinsey & Co., where she discovered that she had an aptitude for business strategizing. In 1986, she jumped from consulting to advertising, taking a market-research position in Chicago at Leo Burnett Co. One year later, Burnett tapped her to launch the Lab.
Observation: A mentor at McKinsey had told Williams that if she wanted to be a consultant to the inner sanctums of blue-chip companies, she’d better earn an MBA. So when she moved to Chicago, her original game plan was to pursue studies part-time at the Kellogg Graduate School of Business at Northwestern University.
A year later, she had to make the choice of a lifetime: She got an offer to launch what was then called the Idea Lab, a service that would help Burnett’s advertising clients to brainstorm new products. By then, she had gotten married and had given birth to twins, and the demands of part-time business classes – added to a full-time job and motherhood – were just too much to handle.
Should Williams pass up the offer at Burnett and transfer to Kellogg full-time to finish her degree? Or should she drop out of business school and give up a clear shot at the consulting job of her dreams?
“I decided to stop looking at my career priorities and to start deciding on my life priorities,” Williams says. “I took a hard look at whether graduate studies would help with the things in my life that I really value. And I decided that they wouldn’t. So I figured, ‘Enough already.’ “
Results: In the end, Williams charted a different map for getting ahead. While her colleagues dutifully followed the main road through school, she took a detour through the Lab – which got her where she wanted to go in less time.
Williams made a name for herself and the Lab by bringing unusual tactics to the table. When a client was struggling to come up with products for its Gen-X market, she took the executive team on a tour of Chicago’s twentysomething nightlife, capped with a midnight visit to a grunge bar. “Traditional management consultancies are very fact-based and process-oriented,” Williams says. “At the Lab, we rely on instinct and intuition – skills that they really can’t teach you in B-school.”
Conclusion: Sometimes the best career path is the path less traveled. “Getting an MBA wasn’t about me or about what I wanted; it was about what the world was telling me I had to do. I decided to find another way – my way.”
Coordinates: Brenda Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org
Hypothesis: Exposure to failure causes ugly career mutations.
Subject: Howard Greenstein, 32, a technical evangelist for Microsoft
Career DNA: Greenstein is an information omnivore. Each week, he chews through about 2,500 emails and 10 hours’ worth of trade-magazine reading. He meets monthly with the World Wide Web Artists Consortium in New York, an organization of hip Internet players, to get the latest scoop on new software tools. (He’s been involved in various leadership positions since the consortium’s founding in 1994.) For Greenstein, staying ultra-informed is a career imperative: As an evangelist at Microsoft, he’s a major proponent of tomorrow’s technology. He learns Microsoft’s software when it’s little more than a glint in a developer’s eye, and then he teaches its inner workings to companies that will use it to build other applications. Among other marquee projects, he has helped Web developers create the preloaded content channels in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 4.0.
Says Greenstein: “My job is to know about the next big thing before it happens.”
Observation: In 1996, Greenstein joined Netcast Communications Corp., a pioneering company that planned to deliver broadcast-quality music, news, and sports over the Internet. As director of operations, he oversaw the technology infrastructure: the data center, the Internet connections, the hardware – all of the tools that developers would need to create product. Greenstein was the startup’s number-five hire, and although the company’s future was uncertain, he had no doubts. “They had a great concept and a really great business plan,” he says.
But venture capitalists were skeptical of Netcast’s business model, which relied on content gathered from other companies. Netcast also burned a big chunk of its available cash by building a spacious office that would have let the company grow physically – but that left little in the coffers to let it grow financially. One investor backed out, and others quickly followed. The founders laid off the staff for three and a half weeks but then tried to keep the business running until they could get a bridge loan. Once they got the loan, Greenstein recalls, they asked members of the senior staff to take pay cuts until the cash flow improved.
“Even at that point, I believed we would succeed,” Greenstein says. “But Netcast’s plight certainly made it easier for me to consider another offer.”
Results: Greenstein was snapped up by Microsoft a few weeks before Netcast finally closed shop. (This past July, Broadcast.com redeemed Netcast’s business model when it recorded the most successful IPO ever – after adopting a similar model.)
Conclusion: A setback can sometimes put your career in fast-forward. Though Netcast did not survive, Greenstein doesn’t think of his experience there as a failure. In a job that coupled immense freedom with overwhelming responsibility, he learned how to fend for himself.
Microsoft didn’t care that Netcast failed: All that mattered to the software giant were Greenstein’s skills. “I’ve proven to any future employer that I can take risks, manage uncertainty, and come back for more.”
Coordinates: Howard Greenstein, email@example.com
Hypothesis: Experience is a leader’s most valuable asset.
Subject: Miles Walsh, 46, independent CEO-for-hire
Career DNA: Walsh is a self-described “executive gunslinger.” He gallops into a company and stays just long enough to generate triple-digit growth, a successful IPO, or whatever goal he’s promised its board of directors. Then he rides off to find another company that needs a guy in a white hat. Walsh does more than swap jobs – he swaps entire industries. He’s held top jobs at companies that specialize in hardware, software, Internet technologies, catalog sales, and electronics. Walsh says that he’s the victim of a short but ferocious attention span.
“I can get up to speed quickly and get significant results, but then I get bored with whatever industry I’m in,” he admits. His most recent heroic role was at Flycast Communications Inc., a Web-advertising network where he was president and CEO. When he joined the company in April 1997, it had lost a round with venture capitalists, it had burned through all but 60 days’ worth of cash, and it was woefully behind schedule for shipping its premier product. Four months later, the company had secured more than $7 million in venture capital, it had delivered a product, and it had landed more than 100 customer contracts.
Observation: As a frequent industry hopper, Walsh is an outsider who needs to get on the inside – fast.
In 1994, Walsh had joined Macromedia Inc. as VP of marketing. The multimedia software company had an alarming image problem: Most potential customers couldn’t tell pollsters what the company did, let alone name its flagship multimedia products (Director and Authorware). After work one day, Walsh gathered a group of eight seasoned Macromedia veterans for pizza. His goal: to brainstorm a marketing plan.
At first, the group focused on the typical challenge of the multimedia industry: How can we explain our products to our customers – when our products are so complex that even our salesforce needs six months of training before it can do a demo? Walsh hit on a different question: “What if we don’t explain the products? What if we just find a way to show what they do?” That simple notion was the beginning of a whole new marketing strategy.
The team designed a CD that showed real customers who had used Macromedia software to do cool stuff. The “Showcase CD” included the experience of one customer who used the software to put his résumé on the Internet (in 1994, a landmark breakthrough) and got more than 100,000 responses. USA Today picked up the story and ran it on page one.
Results: The audience for Showcase and for the software that it demonstrated grew like mold in a petri dish. “We shipped millions of CDs,” Walsh says. “It was like having a 24-hour salesforce that never whined or asked for a raise.” The boost from the CD helped Macromedia’s total sales grow from $56 million in 1995 to $116 million less than two years later.
Conclusion: Inexperience is an undervalued asset. Walsh credits several of his success stories to his outsider status. “People who spend a long time working at the same place tend to try out variations on the same ideas,” he says. “Too much knowledge can get in the way of fresh thinking.”
Coordinates: Miles Walsh, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cheryl Dahle (email@example.com) is Fast Company’s Web Editor.