Harris Roberts - "A Little Experience is a Dangerous Thing"

Harris Roberts was growing tired of waiting for advancement at the pharmaceuticals MNC where he was in not-senior-enough management. He thought of joining a small start-up, or even striking out as an entrepreneur. The INSEAD Chaired Professor of Organisational Behaviour Herminia Ibarra presents the case of Harris as an illustration of some of the more common, but complex dynamics inherent to the career decision-making process. What strategies and support networks are most effective when trying to determine whether and how to engineer a major career transition?

by Herminia Ibarra
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Harris Roberts, 39, was looking for more out of his professional life. He dreamt of heading one of the major divisions of Pharmco, the large drugs maker where he was a regulatory affairs director. The CEO, Harris's mentor, had promised him a business unit after Harris had finished an executive education programme. But a complicated new product launch was delaying such decisions. The CEO pleaded with Harris for patience. But the young executive was growing increasingly restless.

Harris had built a personal network of senior managers to watch over his development, and hopefully help him in determining his future with the company. But they were increasingly preoccupied with their own responsibilities. The birth of his second child only added urgency to his desire to move ahead, either as part of Pharmco, or otherwise. Harris began considering joining a late-stage start-up firm, or even striking out on his own. But as he admitted to himself, he "didn't even know what the résumé of a small-firm CEO ought to look like".

The INSEAD Chaired Professor of Organisational Behaviour Herminia Ibarra presents the case of Harris Roberts as an illustration of the complex dynamics inherent to the career decision-making process. What strategies are most effective when an individual is trying to determine whether and how to engineer a major career transition? What type of support network - be it from mentors, other well-wishers or personal partners - is most helpful in the long run? Perhaps most vitally, how does a person come to define for him or herself what their real long-term goals should be?

The "A" case describes Harris's initial frustrations, tempered by his wife's "voice for stability". Headhunters were expressing their interest in him, however. And an exodus of admired peers from Pharmco, plus a growth in healthcare start-ups looking for senior talent, was complicating his personal picture.

The "B" case details how an unexpected series of events - both personally fortunate, and otherwise - tests Robert's managerial skills. The challenges of first assuming a longed-for leadership position, only to see it taken away, forced Harris into greater, but ultimately beneficial introspection. He came to realise that even the ways in which he talked about himself had changed. With growing confidence, he felt far more secure in pursuing the path he eventually set for himself.

[Note: This case is designed to serve as a companion to readings from Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, (Harvard Business School Press, 2003) by the same author.]

INSEAD 2005

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