So the CEO of Acme Widget calls you, and says, in so many words, U Da Man! U Da Man who can crank up slumping sales. U Da Man who can provide new thinking. U Da Man, in short, who can fix her broken company. What will it take, Ms. Acme Widget says, to get U Da Man on her team -- today? I know what you're thinking: I Da Man! How much do I get paid, and when do I start? Whoa, Mr. U Da Man. Before you swallow the flattery, you need to ask yourself this question: How will this job affect my personal market capitalization? I'm not talking about your stock portfolio or your 401(k). I'm asking about something far more precious (and volatile): Your long-term value in the marketplace, represented as a discounted cash flow of your earnings from this point in your career until you retire. Your personal market cap is the single largest asset you have; imagine the size of the stock portfolio you would need to generate such a consistent, increasing return -- $100,000 or more per year for 25 or more years -- without tapping into its principal. Like any other equity, however, your personal market cap can appreciate or depreciate, depending on investments in its two major components: Experience: Experience isn't merely time spent and skills acquired, though added years and competencies can help. More important is what you learned during those years through trial and error. The effect of experience on your personal market capitalization is best represented by the story about the retired engineer summoned back by his old firm when a critical piece of equipment fails. After inspecting the recalcitrant machinery, the engineer places a chalk mark on its side and tells his former colleagues to give the thing a sturdy thwack on the chalk mark whenever it stops. Sure enough, the machine starts after being struck. Grateful company execs shake his hand and insist that he bill them for the fix. After his invoice for $50,000 arrives, however, the same execs gulp and ask for an itemization of time and materials. The engineer complies in writing:
1 chalk mark: $1 Knowing where to put chalk mark: $49,999The experience component of your personal market capitalization is derived from how many chalk marks you know how to place on how many kinds of machines (or people or teams or markets, etc.). Will the new job at Acme add to your knowledge base of chalk marks, or merely make use of an old one? Reputation: Reputation starts with character, is built through actions, and is spread by word of mouth. It can be the single most important factor in your personal market cap, yet calculating the effect of a career move on reputation isn't as easy as it seems. Is Acme known as a leader in its field, with strong management talent? On one hand, your association with Acme could boost your reputation; on the other, people may assume that any good work you do there is the result of Acme's strong systems and support -- not you. By the same token, if Acme is a well-known loser, your affiliation there could hurt; then again, if you succeed in turning part or all of Acme around, you'll be recognized as an industry genius, with a corresponding rise in personal market cap. Which could, in turn, lead to another phone call with the technical term U Da Man . . . John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm.