Chase Skills, Not Dollars (and Management is for Suckers)

In most business settings, "manager" is a special role set aside for the biggest sucker, the one who is willing to do the owner's dirty work in exchange for a chance to boss people around.

February 4, 2008: Returning to the FFCA podcast show after some travels, Jon added this podcast update to one of his favorite chapters, in which he talks about how you can dramatically change your career path by focusing on skills and less on your total salary. Drawing on his own experiences after graduating, Jon explains how he used this tactic to get out of the service industry for good. He also hits on the more controversial part of this chapter, “management is for suckers.”

It’s hard to master life without mastering business, and it’s hard to master business when you’re slogging it out in the service industry. People have a nasty habit of taking dead-end jobs because “the money is too good to pass up.” Later, they hit a bitter ceiling.

I didn’t know diddly-squat after I graduated from college. Of all the ill-advised decisions I made, I did have one redeeming impulse: I craved new skills, and I was willing to suffer financially to get them. At one point, I took a “job” for forty dollars a week editing a new publication. That’s one way to break into a new field.

When you’re willing to work for pennies, doors open. Friends waiting tables were banking more than I was. But I had this fanciful notion that my real compensation was the business education I was receiving. It might have been the only thing from that entire era I was right about.

Often times, jobs that have the most cash incentives – bartending, waiting tables, and entry-level sales positions – don’t have a skills upside. (Though true sales jobs, where you prospect and close leads, are *vastly superior* to retail “sales” environments where you learn how to scan batteries instead of closing deals).

“Management” positions can be even more dangerous. In most business settings, “manager” is a special role set aside for the biggest sucker, the one who is willing to do the owner’s dirty work in exchange for a chance to boss people around. “Management” experience is valuable to a point, but as a general rule, it’s better to have a life than to get stuck acting like an owner but being paid like an employee.

Full disclosure: I currently manage people for my biggest client. It all depends on what you’re getting out of it. In this case, my situation doesn’t feel stagnant, and I have a profit sharing agreement in place. But I’ve been in crummy management situations before, the kind where you work way too hard for an extra quarter an hour and a bigger set of keys. You can get lost in so-called “management careers.” The real secret is to learn just enough about management to know how to push your own ventures forward.

The preferred approach is simple: “chase the skills, and the money will follow.” There’s no absolute rules – all you need is a knack for knowing when a job is drying up. If you head towards the biggest challenge, and switch jobs ruthlessly to find those challenges, you’re on the right track. Notice that this approach clashes with how our corporate friends want us to play.

Drop this line during an interview: “I’m here to learn as much as I can from your company, but as soon as I’ve outgrown this situation, I will move on.” You’ve broken a cardinal rule by stating your self-interest; no offer will be forthcoming. Nevermind that your future employer would do the same to you in a heartbeat.

Think of your business know-how as a container, and your cash flow as the water. Most people have pretty leaky containers. It doesn’t matter how much cash you throw into a leaky container; it will all flow out the bottom. So what makes for a strong container? Some people think it’s about tracking every expense and clipping coupons. At best, that’s just the beginning.

It’s not as simple as treating expenses like Whack-A-Mole, popping each in the head when it pokes up. Expenses are not created equal; sometimes you have to spend money to make more of it. So we have to understand the power of investing, and that means grasping financial documents like balance sheets and profit and loss statements. Strengthening our grip on cash flow requires more than just financial know-how; it also involves marketing/sales and project management skills. You can learn some of this on your own, but the best place to pick it up is on the job. By learning how a business invests, earns, and spends, you can apply that to your own situation.

Companies assess human resources in terms of their current needs and overall direction. We should adopt this same approach, continually assessing the tradeoffs. When we get seriously off track, it’s time for a career change. For some, this smacks of disloyalty. We have a hard time putting our own interests first. We are conditioned to give everything to our employers, and they are more than willing to take it. But if you are stagnating, you won’t perform at your highest level. By pursuing the best work situations, you bring out the best in yourself. And that’s the real meaning of loyalty.

Want to buy Free From Corporate America or see reviews of the final published version from readers like yourself? The printed book is now available on with product reviews.

You can also get a discounted version of the final book in eBook (PDF) format, or you can pick up a copy on the Kindle. The published version of the book is significantly enhanced from the web version available on this site.

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