Be a Track Star

Top headhunter James M. Citrin on how to build a great career now.

  • Who he is: Global leader, technology, communications, and media practice, Spencer Stuart
  • CEOs he’s placed: Terry Semel, Yahoo; Ed Zander, Motorola
  • Most recent work: Coauthor, The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers (Crown Business, 2003)

The state of the hiring market: We’re in the healthiest place we’ve been in the 10 years I’ve been in the business. There’s balance between experiential value and potential value. Hiring companies want a proven track record of success coupled with indications that the person will continue to learn and build on her experiences.


Best places to work now to get to the next level: I tell MBAs and middle managers this all the time: Do not underestimate the power of the brand you’re associated with. Go blue chip earlier in your career. It’s like going to a great university. It’s great taking entrepreneurial risk, but you have to establish a track record at one of these recognizable companies. Here are some businesses that fit that bill and why.

Microsoft–It’s moving toward much more of a general management philosophy. Seven business units with full P&Ls and general managers. This has the potential to be the GE for tech leaders of the 21st century.

Dell–Hiring companies love its degree of growth, its bias for analysis and measurement, and its quantitative management. Its direct-to- customer model is one that many companies across all industries are trying to move toward.

The whole wireless category is very sought after–Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless, less so AT&T Wireless because it’s not renowned for its management. Think about it: Wireless is tech and communications convergence, it’s the direct-to- consumer model. It also has retail channels, it has a subscription model, and it’s highly competitive. It’s applicable to industries as wide as cable television, fast food, publishing, and the Internet.

Last “Hey, doc, can you look at my elbow?” conversation: I just talked today with a guy, 40 and highly regarded, who has been running a business unit and whose CEO wants him to become chief strategy officer. He was very concerned about getting off the operating track, and what that would do for his continuing career development.

My advice: If he goes from an operating role to a strategy role for three years, then yes, he’ll be rele-gated to Siberia. But to do it for one year, even two years, is great. Because, ideally, boards want people who are operators, strategists, and who have leadership skills. If he can get experience and acknowledgment for strategic planning, then that’s actually a great thing. But he should try to negotiate an out from his contract that would let him leave for a noncompetitive operating role.


Career book to read right now: Career Warfare, by David D’Alessandro (McGraw Hill, 2003). Funny, direct, pithy. Lots of stories.

Best “found” career advice: I read the John Adams biography by David McCullough. Adams was such a student of people that in his early days, after Harvard, every time he met somebody, that night, he would go and write what made them special in his journal. I started doing that after every meeting.