Ty Clark asked me for advice on job seeking: The best advice I’ve ever heard about picking a job is to pick your boss first, not the job.
This is challenging since the system of finding jobs is designed the other way: it’s set up to let bosses pick you. Job ads don’t have a field listing a “Boss Suckiness Index (BSI)” or “what % of her reports love or hate her.” At best you talk to your possible boss during an interview, and interviews are mostly BS. Yet by focusing on who your boss will be above most other criteria changes both how you pursue jobs and how happy you’ll be once you pick one.
The simple reasons why your boss matters more than you realize are:
- A good boss in a mediocre company will protect you and support you on a daily basis.
- A bad boss in a good company will frustrate and demoralize you on a daily basis.
In the first case, you will learn more and possibly have more opportunities than in the latter. A good boss will recognize your talents and develop them. A bad boss may never recognize what you can do at all, or take advantage of you more than help you. The only upside to a bad boss in a good company is if working for them is the only way into the company after a year you can possibly transfer to a different team, with a different boss, and achieve the best of both worlds (assuming you survive that long).
Most people looking for jobs focus on other criteria such as:
- Salary. This is important, but beyond your minimum needs it can be a trap. There are many people with $250k salaries who hate their jobs and, as a consequence, their lives. They work with coworkers who were also primarily attracted to salary. If you are thinking long term, or want a high growth career, salary can’t be your primary criteria. Salary is the laziest measure of the quality of a job and therefore the weakest.
- What you will work on. Many people are attracted to specific projects or roles. I did this for years until I learned hot projects didn’t necessarily make for happy/productive work environments. While I learned much, my career suffered. I watched plenty of people thinking longer term who stayed with good managers rather than chasing cool projects, and they rose in seniority in the company as their managers did.
- What your job title will be. Even if you have to work as an intern, if you are talented and work hard a good boss will recognize your ability and move you into a position worthy of your skills. Even if they don’t have another job opening for you, a good boss will have a healthy network and can help place you somewhere that does, with a good manager they know who works there. Chasing the best job title you can get at the expense of who you’ll be working for is a trap: they may never let you leave that job title, no matter how much you outgrow it.
Picking bosses demands having a strong network. You need to cultivate friendships with people in your field where you can share notes on the bosses you’ve worked for. It takes time and research to put it together, but knowing who in your field the good managers are and seeking them out is the best asset you can have for a long and healthy career. If you have one or two companies in mind, investigate who the best bosses are in your job function so you know the landscape, and if the opportunity presents itself, which way to lean if an opportunity arises.
The less experience you have, the harder it is to pick your own boss when you’re hired. That’s ok. Instead ask about how much internal mobility there is: do people move between teams and groups easily? If yes, once hired your goal should be to figure out what things you need to set in motion to give you that choice and to study who is the best boss there for you.
Related: How to survive a bad manager