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The lost art of sticking around and rising through the ranks

Don’t feel the pressure to join the Great Resignation, says this tech CEO, who rose through the ranks from junior engineer. He’s been at the same company for 25 years.

The lost art of sticking around and rising through the ranks
[Photo: Ali Arapoğlu/Pexels]
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The global pandemic has prompted many to rethink their professional lives, what makes them happy and how they spend their time. In what’s being dubbed the Great Resignation, millions of people are now quitting or changing their jobs—or at least thinking about it.

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COVID-19 aside, a perfect storm of reasons explains the increasingly wandering labor force: the ease with which workers and prospective employers can find one another over the internet, the increase in remote working that removes geographical tethers, the disappearance of defined-benefit pensions that rewarded longevity, and the emergence of the gig economy. Even before the Great Resignation, the median number of years that workers spent with one employer was a mere 4.2, according to U.S. government statistics.

It’s been suggested that continuously changing jobs fulfills a basic human need and that the single-company career model of past decades was more an exception, psychologically speaking, than a rule. Or perhaps people are simply more restless and less loyal than they used to be?

All of which makes me an anomaly.

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I joined Juniper Networks in 1997 as employee number 32 (there are now more than 10,000 of us). At that time, Bill Clinton was starting his second term as President. One gallon of gas cost $1.19. Bruce Willis still had hair and mine was still a dark brown rather than the current salt and pepper.

Except for one other tech firm where I worked for a year between obtaining my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I’ve spent my entire career at Juniper. I started as the most junior engineer in the firm and I suspect that what compelled management to give me a shot was the need to find somebody that would do the mundane work that the more senior technical talent didn’t want to. After a series of promotions and 17 years at the company, I was named CEO in 2014.

As the workforce has grown more flighty, homegrown CEOs are increasingly rare. Even with a few notable examples—such as Doug McMillon of Walmart, who started as a summer associate making $6.50 an hour; Richard Fain of Royal Caribbean Cruises, who’s been at the company for 33 years; and Citigroup’s Michael Corbat who spent 37 years at the bank before retiring in February—the list is tiny.

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As the years have piled up, I’ve done a great deal of thinking about my journey. In the beginning, I didn’t plan to remain with one organization for so long, nor was I aiming for the corner office. Yet, it all happened. Why? How? And what observations and advice would I offer others about what it takes to survive and thrive in a single company for so long, even in tumultuous times?

Choose the right company

This is obvious, but it needs to be said: If you’re going to stay married to one company, make sure it’s a company you love. It must offer a range and diversity of experiences, opportunities for ever-more interesting responsibilities and, last but not least, have a mission, culture, and corporate values you believe in with your heart.

Without these foundational elements, the risk of getting bored or suffering burnout is high. With them, the company can start to feel like a home.

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You don’t need a five-year plan

Over the years, many have coached me to develop a professional plan with short- and long-term objectives and strategies to achieve them. I’ve never had one and you might not need one either.

I never set my sights on the CEO chair. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t ambitious, but my aspirations didn’t lie with winning this or that promotion as part of an imagined career arc. Rather, what drove me was simply getting the opportunity to work on ever-more-important and intellectually stimulating projects and to have a seat at the table where consequential decisions were being made.

I figured if I did a great job in each new role, the rest would take care of itself. And it did! So, toss the five-year plan and just get to work.

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Perseverance

In his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things,  Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ben Horowitz wrote, “whenever I meet a successful CEO, I ask them how they did it. Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their intuitive business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations. The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say, ‘I didn’t quit.'”

I’ve worked with some incredible people throughout my career who were equally, if not more, ambitious than me, but who lacked the patience and grit to stick out the tough times. I have a stubborn personality that causes me to dig in my heels when the going gets tough (some would say to a fault) and to prove the skeptics wrong. I’m not suggesting this makes me great. I’m saying unshakeable perseverance can be a powerful ingredient to seeing your career grow and achieving your full potential in any organization.

Disrupt or be disrupted

A huge potential pitfall of the single-company career model is that you can fall into a comfort zone and get stale. To achieve long-term success with one employer, you must not ever allow yourself to get comfortable.

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I started at Juniper as an individual contributor, then took on increasing engineering responsibilities. From there, I pivoted to product management, rose through several general manager positions and, finally, became CEO. I readily admit that I’ve never felt 100% ready for that next career step. But I never let that stop me from taking on that next challenge, learning new skills and testing my ability to succeed at new and ever-increasing levels of responsibility.

I’m a scholar of Andy Grove and a big believer that only the paranoid survive. In an extremely fast-paced and competitive industry like tech, you need to wake up every day thinking “disrupt or be disrupted.” You have to get used to the discomfort of constant butterflies in your stomach and always be open to change.

Comfort means inevitable death to a high-tech company. It can also be the greatest inhibitor to your career.

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Avoid myopia

Long-time company veterans have institutional knowledge—they understand the organization deeply, how work actually gets done, where the skeletons are hidden, etc. The possible hazard, of course, is the myopia that can come from being part of the system for so long.

Leaders in this position must be aware of the risk of myopia and deliberately and actively fight it. It’s important to surround yourself with teams that have a healthy balance of veterans and newer people with fresh, outside perspectives. It also helps to build a strong and diverse network of professionals outside your company.

Yes, the single-company career is becoming almost unheard of, but I’ve found it can be richly rewarding—if you’re aware of what it takes to succeed. Call me a proud member of the Great Non-Resignation.

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Rami Rahim is CEO of Juniper Networks. The company develops and markets networking products, including routers, switches, network management software, network security products, and software-defined networking technology.