Our 20s and 30s are our prime years for career building.
Whatever we do during this time will compound. This includes the hard and soft skills we learned; the achievements we accumulated and the network we build.
Our choices now are more important than those we’ll make later on. They will set the trajectory for the rest of your life.
In April, I had exceeded my annual targets for the financial year (which ends in April).
This gave me more bandwidth to reflect on my life so far. I thought about my journey in the SaaS sector and more importantly, how I want to set myself up for success in the next few years.
In my 20s, I made several smart and strategic decisions. This helped me accelerate my growth and be better in my craft than many Account Executives who were older than me.
The key was really focusing on the long game and prioritising learning and network. And, choosing the right things to trade off.
For example, I joined Salesforce in 2019. I had to work my way up from working with SME customers and also take a slightly lower OTE compared to market rate.
However, the experience at Salesforce was incredible for my growth. We were given the right skills, best practices on deal making and spending a few years there really boosted my resume.
Since leaving, I know exactly what to prepare for my forecast sessions; exactly what to do when I am assigned a new territory; I am able to control deals better and to dedicate my time and attention on the right opportunities.
My market value rose tremendously and my annual income grew more than 200% from 2019 to 2022.
Most people optimize for the day ahead. A few people optimize for 1-2 years ahead. Almost nobody optimizes for 3-4 years ahead (or longer).— James Clear (@JamesClear) April 19, 2023
The person who is willing to delay gratification longer than most reduces competition and gains a decisive advantage.
Patience is power.
I started to think about how I would replicate this success in the next few years?
Right now, I am doing what I can to just get 1% better daily. I read voraciously; listen to several business and personal growth podcasts. I even hired a coach to help me improve my performance at work.
I go for events multiple times a month and organize coffee chats with leaders and investors in the tech/SaaS/startup space.
I also regularly sit down with mentors on a quarterly basis. Every year, I also speak with a recruiter who has been in the tech space for more than 20 years to discuss my gaps, and what we can do to fill them.
However, we can only do so much on an individual level.
I am someone who is always thinking about leverage. How do I achieve my goals and learn as much as i can within the shortest amount of time with the least pain?
To accelerate our growth, we need leverage.
Leverage comes from being in the right external environment; company; opportunities and having access to the right network and resources.
This will create a system where the effort we put in can yield a larger return.
Here are three levers we can pull to accelerate growth in our prime years
1. Work for great leaders
Our prime years are too short to work for leaders we cannot respect and learn from.
Great leadership makes a massive difference in our growth, career trajectory and performance.
I’ve witnessed two separate teams before. One whose boss is in retirement mode and the other one whose boss is super hungry.
There is a massive difference in the impact on the team when it comes to quality of talent; holding the adjacent teams accountable; coaching and removal of obstacles. This ultimately impacted the skill level, morale and performance of the team mates.
Similarly, I have also seen several people benefit from leaders who coached them well, improved in their skills in such as short period of time and accelerated their careers.
However, I learned recently that other than your direct manager, it is also important to evaluate the broader leadership team.
I am not sure if this due to bad luck. However, in my past three jobs, all my managers all left before me. They either got promoted; moved to other roles within the company or left for a faster growing company.
It was quite frustrating because 50% of why I join a company is because of the quality of my direct manager.
I shared about these series of unfortunate events to an ex-Tableau leader.
He gave me really good advice which was to focus not only on my hiring manager but the quality of talent in the broader leadership team.
In his words:
“I like the fact that you want to be mentored by your manager so that you can expand your skill sets and knowledge. However, especially in this present climate be cognizant that this may not be in your control. Your manager may get another offer, company may be in reduction mode… So do continue to seek out mentors that you can work and learn from but know that this situation might change.
Therefore, in addition to finding mentors and managers that you can learn from you may want to also see if the company itself has great management in general.
Your pillar (choice of manager) may change but the “super-structure” leadership is also in place to make sure that you are successful and they will pick the right replacement. “
2. Be in a high growth company
In high growth companies, careers take care of themselves.
To illustrate, when you compare the best performer in a stagnant company versus a high growth company. The salary might be the same but the opportunities available for advancement and growth are drastically different.
A high performer in a growth company has more leverage. The put in the same amount of effort, perform at the same level but get a disproportionately larger access to good opportunities. This means ultimately their careers will accelerate faster.
This is because as the company expands, new roles and responsibilities may emerge, providing opportunities for career advancement and professional development.
A high growth company also attracts the best of breed when it comes to talent. You can think of it as an elite school in Singapore where barriers to entry are often high. This means you to network and build bonds with people who will go on to be key players in the industry and working in other rocketship.
Why is that so?
Talented individuals who are motivated by the opportunity to contribute to building something meaningful and see the direct results of their work are often attracted to high growth companies.
Top talent also thrive in dynamic, fast-paced environments where they can have more freedom to explore new ideas, take risks, and make decisions that can shape the direction of the company.
The quality of leaders are often much better too. In a company with ambitious and aggressive goals, weak leadership is extremely visible.
In contrast, a big company that is growing at a slower pace – less than 10% per year – often attracts those who prefer stability, good benefits, a slower pace of life and worklife balance.
If you are in a job where you are not growing fast, there are a lot of hidden costs – yes, even if you are paid well.
Every day you stay here means the competition is accelerating faster, learning new skills or rising faster because your company is growing much faster.
In Singapore, competition is global and there is no room for complacency. Companies can easily hire the best and brightest from abroad for the role you want. Younger workers will replace you and you lose your competitive edge.
While the older generation could do this and see success, this is because our labour market was not as global then.
Similarly, capital is no longer cheap and we will likely not see the boom times like in 2020-2022 any time soon.
3. Surround yourself with highly competent and driven people
There is a buddhist saying which goes like this “Incense wrapped around incense smells of incense; a string binding fish smells of fish”
If one wants to excel, the best thing you can do for yourself is to put yourself in an environment where you are always exposed to other driven people.
These are people who not just sets ambitious goals but are also willing to put in the work and make necessary sacrifices to become better every day.
If someone merely sets goals but does not want to make the proper sacrifices to strategize and learn, they are likely to be someone who has tall poppy syndrome. Or worse, steal your credit for success. Instead of putting effort to improve, he or she might try to discredit you.
To be surrounded by people like that who are entitled and envious can be really stifling and discourage collaboration and excellence.
The right circle of influence raises the bar, helping us to set new, loftier expectations of ourselves. Oftentimes, we don’t know what we are capable of until we see others achieve.
Over the years, my idea of what great looks like has been changing rapidly.
For example, in the past, I thought that earning $300-400k per annum was impressive for a 31 year old. I learned that some were already achieving this at 27 years old!
I’ve always thought of myself as good because I was consistent in overachieving targets in most years.
Then, as I mixed with other people who are high achievers, I realized so what? There are others are doing multi-million SaaS deals, or even starting starting their SaaS companies and they were younger than me. 一山还比一山高
While being inspired by others is good, it is also important to hold on to your own definition of what success is.
For example, I am clear that possessions do not define my worth or idea of success.
This is partly due to my spiritual belief as a Taoist (Value: Simplicity) and also my upbringing where my dad did share something along the lines of – money talks but wealth whispers.
Being able to define factors that can help me do better in my 30s has been a good process for me.
I am now clear on the next steps and directions to take.
“Over the long term, the average person who constantly puts themselves in a good position beats the genius who finds themselves in a poor position. What looks like talent is often good positioning. The best way to put yourself in a good position? Good preparation.”Farnam Street