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YOUR CAREER GAME How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals
By NATHAN BENNETT STEPHEN A. MILES
Stanford University Press Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.
Chapter One YOUR CAREER AS A GAME
The indispensible first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: Decide what you want. Ben Stein
In the film A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe plays game theory pioneer John Nash. One scene from the film succinctly captures the essence of game theory and its implications for decision making. In the scene, Nash and his classmates are together in a bar when a group of five young women walk in-one blonde and four brunettes. The group-and particularly the blonde-quickly attracts the attention of Nash and his friends. Immediately, each classmate begins to plot his next move to win over the blonde. Nash has an epiphany of sorts: If each one independently attempts to maximize his personal outcome (which, in this scenario, involves pursuing the blonde), they will undoubtedly trip over one another and, in the end, no one will "win." He predicts that, by the time their mutual failures to win over the blonde become apparent, it will be too late to turn their energy to her friends-none of the brunettes will want to be second choice. This dilemma causes Nash to comment that Oliver Williamson's classical view-that through individuals acting in their own best interests, the best interests of the group are met-does not fit the situation. If each classmate acts in his own best interest, then they will all fail.
Instead, Nash understands the situation as one in which each individual's best move depends on the anticipated moves that other rational players can be expected to make. Understood this way, the best course of action for each individual is to recall the dynamic-espoused in the title of the 1953 movie-that "gentlemen prefer blondes." Knowing that your classmates are likely to pursue the blonde first, a more effective strategy would be for you to attend to one of the brunette friends. That way, you maximize your chance of winning the attention of one of the women. The critical observation here is the recognition that, in many situations, one individual's best move is often dependent on the anticipated moves of other players. Just as an understanding of game theory might help a college student understand how to win a date, we suggest that it can help you position yourself to have a successful career.
GAME THEORY IN OUR CULTURE
Game theory continues to be a popular topic; a 2005 Nobel prize was, once again, awarded to game theory scholars. It has been used to provide novel ways to look at wide-ranging phenomena including logistics, investing, marketing, human evolution, and terrorism. In popular culture, strategists have used game theory to outline a winning strategy in the spate of reality television shows (The Weakest Link, Survivor, and The Apprentice, for example). These shows share some important characteristics. First, individuals move on to the next round-or are eliminated-based largely on the votes of other contestants. Second, early-round success depends on the contributions of all players. In such contests, the winning strategy involves finding the delicate balance between moves that cause others to conclude that you are too weak to contribute to the group tasks and those that reveal you to be so strong as to be seen by other contestants as a final-round threat. Those who fail to achieve this balance and who appear to be "free riders" in the early rounds may not survive because others conclude that they cannot help the team with early wins. Those who tip their cards and reveal their strength too early will likely be eliminated by temporary alliances of other players.
Not surprisingly, examples of game theory applications abound in competitive sports. For example, the concept of a "moral hazard" is illustrated by the greater propensity for batters in the American League to be hit by pitches than their counterparts in the National League. In the American League, the rules do not require the pitcher to take a turn at bat. As a result, pitchers may not be concerned about experiencing retribution when they throw "at" rather than "to" batters. Anyone who has spent time watching football broadcasts has heard the ubiquitous comment from "color" analysts that a team "has to be able to run to set up the pass" or "has to be able to pass to set up the run." Unknowingly, those commentators are applying the concept of "mixing motives" from game theory to the calling of plays.
Making predictable moves in a multiplayer game is rarely a winning game strategy. If your opponent knows your tendency, developing a response is quite straightforward. When a football defense unit knows a team has trouble passing, they "pack" their players toward the line to stop the run. Similarly, when either tendencies or circumstances suggest that the offense must pass, the defense knows to adjust. The best moves for an offense, then, are to first avoid getting into a situation, such as third and long yardage, in which your position telegraphs your likely play and, above all, to avoid discernable patterns of play calling.
All of us play games in our daily lives, as well. Consequently, game theory can help our understanding of a variety of routine activities familiar to everyone. For example, before leaving the office you may check online to see what the traffic report is for your trip home. Upon hearing of an accident delaying traffic on your primary route, you begin to plot a strategy using alternate roads. Other drivers who share parts of your route home are simultaneously plotting their own strategies. To the extent that you anticipate and avoid their choices, your commute home is a breeze. Should you each select the same alternative, you end up no better off than those stuck on the primary route. Here begins the game of trying to anticipate what your competitors are thinking-and their simultaneous efforts to understand what you are thinking-and each of your efforts to "outthink" the other.
These illustrations show how accessible and useful game theory can be in understanding decision making in situations with interdependent players. Our first task in this book is to provide you with a deeper understanding of the primary concepts behind game theory. Game theory provides ways for you to think about your career so that you learn to anticipate the moves others will make and to plan your own moves accordingly. The second element of this book is the focus on a key individual capability-a new concept we are calling career agility.
GAME THEORY IN CAREERS
Why do we think you will find game theory a useful tool when considering careers? As noted above, game theory has gained some traction as a useful tool for understanding business situations. For the most part, applications of game theory related to business strategy have focused on elements such as pricing strategy, market entry, and strategic moves. The theory has not been explicitly applied to understanding career decision making, although some figures have paved the way. Gary Kasparov, who, in 1985, became the world's youngest chess champion, has since been writing and has become active in Russian politics. He recently published a book titled How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves from the Board to the Boardroom. As the title implies, Kasparov feels that lessons he learned while honing his chess game are applicable to the business world. As Kasparov notes regarding chess, you can't win at your career without moral and physical courage, boldness, and daring. Kasparov also speaks to our sentiments about agility, noting that to win at chess requires intelligence and audaciousness as well as a willingness to do what it takes to unnerve the other player.
Another observation that caused us to explore this topic concerns what we view as a fairly stagnant body of literature on career management. The expression "career advice" returns nearly 14,000 recommendations on Amazon. com's website. The top choice was a book called Career Match: Connecting Who You Are with What You'll Love to Do by Shoya Zichy and Ann Bidou. The title seems to make clear the authors' central premise. The Amazon.com search utility suggests a second title-the ubiquitous What Color Is Your Parachute? 2009 by Richard Nelson Bolles. The admonitions proffered in these books are strikingly similar to advice that appeared fifty years ago. In 1959, an article in Nation's Business offered the following career advice: consider your interests, your abilities, your personality, and "everyday practicalities" and match what you are good at with what you want out of a job. The state of the art in understanding career success does not appear to have changed very much. To our point of view, just as John Nash noted that Oliver Williamson's view of individual decision making required some revision, so, too, does our thinking about how to manage a career. The insights that a game theory approach offers to individuals about how to strategically manage their careers, we think, constitute a proper revision.
Once a career is understood as a game involving players who compete for opportunities, the natural next question concerns how to become a better player. We suggest that the key to developing ability as a career game player is career agility. Career-agile individuals have high emotional intelligence, are politically savvy, are comfortable with uncertainty and risk, and thus demonstrate high degrees of successful portability from position to position over time. Great players of the career game are often modest, and most minimize their own role in their success. In our experience, the most common explanation that executives will offer for their personal success is that they were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Of course, as the Roman philosopher Seneca observed long ago, "luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." Agile executives understand how to navigate to the intersection of preparedness and opportunity. Whereas a concerted effort to do so would likely uncover some examples of meritless people stumbling into that intersection, it is fair to expect that most people's opportunities derive from demonstrated capability. Others describe their rises as resulting from a nearly invisible "hand up" from a mentor. Some successful individuals are more purposeful in their efforts. As one executive told us, "Some people are constantly plotting their career. I don't know where they got this gene, but it seems that they are plotting from the playpen until they become chairman and CEO."
Over the course of the rest of this book, our first goal will be to help you understand the career game; the second goal will be to help you develop your skill as a player. Game theory tools, concepts, and nomenclature will help you understand that your career is productively viewed as a game characterized by interacting, interdependent, and self-interested players. The game has rules; the players all have motives and options. Comfortable salaries, exciting work, promotional opportunities, and charismatic coworkers are among the often zero-sum prizes out there to be "won" by players. Game theory helps us frame the career game-to understand its rules, boundaries, and ways of winning. Then, understanding career agility-a characteristic that individuals can develop-is explained as the key ability to playing the game well. Each is necessary, and neither is sufficient on its own, to win at the game of your career.
In the next chapter, we will introduce you to the game theory concepts that will prove most useful in managing your career. First, however, you will find our conversations with Charlene Begley, Bryan Bell, and Ursula Burns. Charlene Begley is senior vice president with General Electric and president and CEO of GE Enterprise Solutions. She has had a long and successful career at GE and offers a number of important comments on topics, including how GE uses its size to develop careers and how you can attract mentors to your cause. At the time of our conversation, Bryan Bell was finishing his PhD in Bioengineering and had recently accepted a position as a management consultant with Bain & Company. Bell offers some great insight into early-career moves-around universities, majors, and first job decisions. Our final conversation in this chapter is with Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox Corporation. Like Charlene Begley, she has had a long career with one employer and offers some insights into what it is about Xerox that made it possible for her to stay and grow-and what she did in order to continue to garner opportunities. These interviewees' observations provide useful clues for evaluating the likelihood of a long career with a potential employer.
A CONVERSATION WITH CHARLENE BEGLEY
SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, GENERAL ELECTRIC; PRESIDENT AND CEO, GE ENTERPRISE SOLUTIONS
Since stepping into her present position in August 2007, Charlene Begley has been driving growth initiatives in GE's technology, emerging markets, vertical solutions, and global infrastructure. GE Enterprise Solutions has 17,000 problem-solving employees in more than sixty countries around the world.
Begley began her career at GE in 1988. She has held a variety of leadership roles within the company, including vice president of operations at GE Capital Mortgage Services, quality leader and CFO at GE Transportation Systems, director of finance for GE Plastics-Europe, vice president of the Corporate Audit Staff, and CEO at GE FANUC Automation. In January 2003, she was appointed president and CEO of GE Transportation. And in July 2005, she was named president and CEO of GE Plastics.
Begley serves on the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders panel, the GE FANUC board of directors, and the board of the National Association of Manufacturers. She is a graduate of the University of Vermont. See also www.ge.com/company/leadership/bios_exec/charlene_begley.html.
AUTHORS: You have been at GE for twenty years. How did you get started there?
BEGLEY: Coming out of college, I knew I wanted to enter a leadership development program. It was my goal to be some type of leader-although at the time I didn't have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted to lead. As I was looking for a job, I paid attention to companies that had the best reputations for leadership development. That was my first strategy, to get into a company that had a really good reputation for developing people. I started in finance, not because I have a love for it, but because I felt understanding finance was fundamental to understanding overall business.
I went through GE's two-year financial management program, and I made a conscious decision to join the corporate audit staff because it was considered the career accelerator within the company. I wanted a chance to see other functions and to see other parts of GE, so I joined with the intent of broadening myself beyond finance. At that time, the audit staff did about 50 percent nonfinancial work, so it was actually a broadening experience. From there, the opportunities have kept on coming. Beyond the first few decisions-to join GE, to take advantage of the financial management program, and to work in corporate audit-things have happened faster than I could have ever hoped or planned.
AUTHORS: These early steps prepared you for either a long career at GE or for a position elsewhere, since you were learning fairly portable skills.
BEGLEY: True. I never thought about taking them out the door with me, but I certainly could have.
AUTHORS: Our observation is that many companies are quick to cut or scale back on these entry-level leadership development programs. Why has GE remained so committed to theirs?
BEGLEY: You are right about the overall trend. At GE, people and leadership development are fundamental company values. I have been on Jeff Immelt's executive council for years, and on [our previous CEO] Jack Welch's before that. We view talent development as core to our business strategy, and leadership development is a key tactic in our growth strategy. We are more committed than ever to programs that will develop our leadership. For example, we support two-year entry-level programs in finance, IT, HR, engineering, communications, design, and technology. This commitment has never wavered in my twenty years at GE. It has always been a huge priority. No matter how tough it may get from an economic and business standpoint, developing people is one priority where we never lose focus.
Excerpted from YOUR CAREER GAME by NATHAN BENNETT STEPHEN A. MILES Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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