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Defensive move is offensive move

March 31st, 2009 · No Comments

I once played speed chess with a friend in college. My friend was a much better player. He played speed chess with his dorm mates almost every day. I rarely played and I was not a good player at all. Basically, I had no chance to beat him.

But, one thing about speed chess is that the time limit really levels the playing field. My strategy was simple: defensive move is offensive move. My focus was to play as much defense as I could, and wait for my friends to make a mistake.

He was in full attacking mode, fully aware that I was an inexperienced player. But, the more he attacked, the more weaknesses he exposed. Finally, he made a careless mistake. I capitalized on his mistake. I won.

A few years later, I saw the same strategic dynamics in a corporate environment.

It was during the height of the dotcom boom. I was working for a medium-size, publicly traded enterprise software company. The company was rapidly losing market share to an upstart, aggressive competitor. The company had 50% turnover rate — the job market was red hot, and people didn’t want to miss the dotcom gold rush. They were playing offense, aggressively pursuing opportunities in start-ups.

One person, let’s call him John, stayed put. He was a senior support engineer who just started to supervise a couple of junior support engineers. He didn’t do anything, just focused on doing his job. Within two year, the manager of support engineering, manage of software development, director of software development and VP of software development all left the company.

It was incredibly difficult to hire people during that time. And it’s even harder for a mature enterprise software company to hire — it’s just not as sexy as the internet start-ups.

John was promoted from senior support engineer into VP of engineering in two years. Later, he became the CTO of a major software company.

John is a very smart technical person with excellent communication skills. But, he wouldn’t have moved up so quickly if he had not stayed at a sinking ship. He played defense by staying put. But, he ended up going much further than most of the people who joined dotcom start-ups.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t pursue opportunities. But, when you’re considering making a move, make sure you’re making the move for the right reason.

Know your strength, your weakness, your competition, and your selling proposition to your current and future employers. Then figure out if it’s time for you to play offense or play defense.

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Tags: Career Fast Track · Corporate Ladder

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