Tribe, Brand, Domain (TBD) — How to Think about Building Career
Managing a career is confusing at best.
- Did I take the right job?
- Have I stayed at this job too long?
- What should I do next?
100% of people who have ever had a career have asked these questions and more. Maybe you’re considering your career strategy right now?
In a cruel twist of irony, charting a career gets harder the more options you have. We build experience and skills to open up the world of possibilities, but the very existence of those possibilities can be daunting.
As I’ve worked with 100s of young professionals, we have developed a simple rubric that seems to help frame the options and focus in on what really matters. The rubric is this: Tribe, Brand, Domain. This framework has become “a thing” among MBA students at both Brigham Young University and Harvard Business School, and it has been published in Fast Company. It’s easy to remember (Tribe, Brand, Domain = TBD), and it’s a powerful way to weed out distractions and focus on a strategy that works for you.
What Not to Do
Over the years, MBA students have regularly sought me out for career advice. Inevitably they have a couple of job options, and they want to know which one to pick. I ask them to tell me about their options, and their answers are telling. The dimensions along which they are comparing these jobs–more often than not–are wrong.
Why do we consider the wrong things when facing career decisions? One, because it’s easy. Two, because we’ve been told to.
Much of the career advice we’ve been given has been about getting the right “job.” A job is a transitional arrangement with an employer that has certain features easy to measure and compare: title, compensation, benefits, etc. Sometimes we create comparisons between jobs that focus on exactly these things. Which pays more? Which title is better? Which has better benefits, easier commute, etc? While that is certainly an easy checklist to create, I contend it focuses on all the wrong things. If you pan up a few years and look at the span of a career, these features of a single job seem insignificant.
Tribe, Brand, Domain
A career is much more than just a job. A career is something you invest in over the long term. It takes shape longitudinally, layer upon layer. While the person in charge of your job may be your boss, the person in charge of your career is you. Who will decide how to sequence jobs, layer experiences, and develop facets of your professional self? Nobody but you.
In this sense, you are a venture capitalist (VC). But instead of investing money, you are investing your time. And instead of helping a startup company grow up to become a public company, you are helping build your own career from entry-level to executive.
Viewed through this lens, it’s important to focus on things that will matter over the long run. Starting salary doesn’t matter. Starting title doesn’t matter (much). Benefits don’t matter… so what does matter? Just as VCs use the rubric of Market, Team, Product to determine how to invest their money, we need a similar rubric to determine how to invest our time. As I worked on this problem with very talented young professionals over several years, we iterated until we settled on a rubric that seems to resonate universally: Tribe, Brand, Domain.
These concepts are listed deliberately in order of importance. They can help put any job decision into a larger, “career” frame of reference. They can also be used to evaluate a career as it develops over time.
Look to your left and to your right. Who do you see? People who inspire you? Challenge you? Stretch you? Do you get energy from your peers, or do they suck energy from you? Do they encourage you to do your best work or do they bore you? Are you your best professional self among your workmates?
If you don’t like your answers to these questions, you are in the wrong spot. You may think working with inspiring colleagues is a nice-to-have, but it is not. Of all three aspects of your career, Tribe may be the most important.
Add ten years to your current career position. Chances are by then you will be in a new position in a new company, and your current peers will have also moved on. If one of your peers finds the opportunity of a lifetime and they need the best and brightest to join them and reap the rewards of an amazing product, market, etc., who will they call? The people they know and respect. If one of those people is you–lucky you! Same for you–when you run into something amazing and you need to recruit the A-team, who will you call? Think about all the amazing companies that have spun out of Paypal, Ebay, Google… these were teams who bonded as colleagues at amazing startups with strong cultures of high achievement. And when those people spun out of Paypal, Ebay, Google, etc., they went on to build their own amazing companies–together.
If the people you are working with right now are talented, if they are inspiring you, and if you are inspiring them, your Tribe will be an amazing catalyst for your career. You will be surprised how valuable these relationships will be down the road as you navigate the opportunities that lie ahead.
On the other hand, if you look to your left and see Sleepy, and to your right and see Dopey, you may be in trouble. It almost doesn’t matter how much an employer pays you–no amount is enough to sacrifice the opportunity to build relationships with best-and-brightest peers.
Do you love talking about your work at parties, family gatherings, reunions? If so, your work is aligned with your personal brand. You found something that “fits.” If you find yourself making excuses or explaining away what you do, you have to make a change: “I know it sounds like a widget manufacturer, but if you think about it, it’s really more like an entertainment company.” Nope. If you want it to be an entertainment company, then go find an entertainment company to work at!
When we say “brand” we’re not talking about recognizable brand-name companies, per se. In this discussion we are talking about your own, personal brand. Each job you take will follow you. It will attach itself to your resume and follow you for the rest of your adult life. You will use it to introduce yourself, you will answer questions about it, and you will weave it into your professional narrative. If you are passionate about what you are doing, it doesn’t matter how recognizable the name. You could be working for Dinglebomb.com, working on an anti-gravity machine that will never work, but if you’re working with best-and-brightest peers and you’re passionate about the mission, you’ll be proud of this the rest of your life. Your eyes will light up when asked about it. Your fire and energy will shine through when you describe it, and it will be aligned with your personal brand. Alternatively, if you’re just showing up to a job that gave you a bit title and is paying you a lot of money to look the other way while you slowly die of boredom and disinterest–you are in the wrong place. That is not your brand, nor will you like it following you around your whole career. You’ll be making excuses for that job the rest of your life, so you need to make a change, and make it fast!
A key piece of a successful career is getting good at something. The more senior you get, the more you are able to rely on experience and muscle memory and instinct. Your decisions get quicker; your judgement gets better. What will you be good at? Whatever the answer to that question–that is your domain.
Some people develop domain expertise in a functional area, like finance, marketing, sales, etc. Some people focus on an industry: retail, financial services, manufacturing… Still others focus on company stage: start-up, growth stage, M&A, turnaround…
No one develops all the required domain expertise in one single job, so it is up to you to sequence experiences so you can develop each facet of your professional expertise deliberately. Ultimately, through careful strategy, you will become the expert you want to be. Sometimes that means making a lateral move in order to acquire complementary experience. Maybe you’ve learned accounting, but you need to learn financial planning. And then treasury. And then investor relations. Having learned each function within the finance department, maybe you are now ready to be a VP of finance and eventually a CFO.
A job is a contract between you and your employer, whereby you give your employer some of the best years of your life, you do the job they hired you to do, and you create more value than you collect in compensation. If you choose the job carefully, you also build out your Tribe by spending time with inspiring people who will be part of your future. You also enhance your personal Brand by working on something that matters to you. And you develop your Domain expertise by getting experience in a skillset you need to round out your professional self.
TBD can be used to evaluate a single job opportunity: Does this job fit the TBD bill? Or are you perhaps being lured by money or title to do something not so TBD? TBD can also help you evaluate your career. Because a career allows you to reap the cumulative effects of all three: Tribe, Brand, and Domain, at any point you can ask: Have I built the Tribe I want? Do I stay in touch with the right people? Am I leveraging the connections I made along the way and the mutual respect I have with like-minded professionals? Do I like how I look on paper? Have I worked on things I care about? Have I branded myself in a way that represents who I really am? Do I like talking about the career moves I’ve made along the way and how they’ve shaped me? Finally, am I good at what I do? Have I taken the time to learn what I need to learn along the way? Have I put myself in situations that have challenged me and rounded me out as a professional? Can I put myself forward for positions I want, and am I confident not only that I can get the job, but also that I can do the job?
As always, thoughts and comments welcome.
Dave Boyce is a serial software entrepreneur who has helped build and sell four companies. Currently he is Chief Strategy Officer of XANT and board member for Forrester (FORR). Dave is an adjunct professor of marketing at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business and a frequent guest lecturer at Harvard Business School. Dave and his wife Lisa have 6 children and live in Provo, Utah.
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- Xant Team