One of my favorite sayings is “Play for the front of the jersey.”1 If you follow sports, you know what this means. The name of the team goes on the front of the jersey, and the name of the individual goes on the back.
In professional sports, playing for the front of the jersey requires sacrifice. It might mean fewer shots or less playing time. It might result in worse individual statistics, and in turn, lower earnings. Professional athletes often have to decide between doing what’s best for the team’s success or their individual success.
Many people assume this same kind of dynamic exists within startups. They wonder if they should do what’s best for their company or do what’s best for their career.
But this is a false choice. At a startup, being a me-first player is just a bad strategy. There are no individual statistics. Playing for the front of the jersey is the best way to play for the back of the jersey. The only thing that matters is playing for a winning team.
Think about it. You probably don’t know me. Yet you’re reading this. Somehow you care about what I have to say. Why?
Is it because you know how I did on my McKinsey projects from 19 years ago? Do you know what investments I worked on at KKR? How about any initiatives that took place during my time at Instacart? Have you studied the returns of the investments I have made while at Sequoia?
Of course you haven’t. All you know about me is that I’ve played for winning teams. That’s it. And because of that, you are willing to give me a chance.2
Whatever you’re solving for in your career, helping build winning teams is the best way to get it. In general, people optimize for some combination of three things in a job: (1) Compensation, (2) Title, or (3) Experience.
Let’s start with the person who wants to make as much money as possible. Cash compensation in startups is bounded. The only way to make money beyond the cash range is to have the equity become valuable. You can either own a tiny portion of a company with a huge outcome or a small to medium-sized piece of a company with a pretty good outcome. You know what doesn’t earn you any money? Having a big chunk of equity at a company that doesn’t work. In startups, the only time you get paid is when your team wins a championship.
Let’s move to the title maximizer. This person wants to maximize his or her seniority, often with an eye toward leveling up again in a future role.3 When companies are looking for great people, they often rely on recruiters to find them candidates. Where do recruiters look for candidates? Winning companies. You want to know the easiest way to become a C-level at a startup? Be a VP at a company they admire.4
Let’s finish with the experience optimizer. Some people are focused on the quality of their experience. This is typically measured by things like their learning curve, pride in their work, and day-to-day enjoyment. Winning teams are better on all of these dimensions. For learning, the talent density in winning companies creates opportunities to learn from great people. For pride, there is nothing like being part of a winning team; one of the nice things about success is that everyone gets to feel responsible for it. And on day-to-day enjoyment, the camaraderie that comes from building a winning team and culture is unmatched.
So, if a leader you respect in your company comes to you and asks you to work on something different than you signed up for, don’t get annoyed. Get excited. You’re being offered the chance to work on something more important to the company’s success than the thing you’re working on now.5
Here’s a story I love. Chris Cox joined Facebook in 2005. He was one of the first 15 engineers at the company. A couple of years in, Mark Zuckerberg asked him to lead HR because he thought that was the most important thing for the company. I would suspect this wasn’t Chris’s plan when he joined Facebook. After some thought, he ultimately said yes and helped define the company’s mission and values. He moved to the product org after a year or so. Today’s he’s the Chief Product Officer of a $400B company with 3 billion+ users.
If you’re an employee who wants to optimize your career, figure out what will make your company win. Then go do that. Over and over again. It will show up in your title and your compensation. And in terms of experience…helping build a winning company is the ride of a lifetime.
Miracle is a movie about the 1980 US Olympic team. Watch the scene where the coach asks the players who they play for. If you don’t have goosebumps when the guy says, “I…play…for…the United States of America”, you can have a full refund on this blog.
It’s just a chance. You still have to actually do a good job after being given that chance.
This is not a good strategy but we can address that in a future post.
You can replace C-level and VP with any combination of titles that are one apart.
And if you’re a founder or leader doing the asking, don’t be bashful - you’re doing them a favor by increasing the chance of them working on a winning team.
Or when he studied symbolic systems with an AI concentration at Stanford.