Think Like the Knight to Advance Your Career

As my six-year-old son immerses himself in learning chess, I’m reminded that this great game can be a powerful metaphor for some of life’s most important lessons. One involves career advancement: The way to move up often requires a move over.


Most chess pieces move unidirectionally, so their movement is easy to learn. But the one move that has taken the longest for my son to master is that of the knight, which requires a simultaneous horizontal hop and vertical hop. Tricky indeed.


As a recruiter, I see this same conundrum vexing both job applicants and hiring managers. Employees are often reluctant to move laterally without an advancement opportunity. Meanwhile, employers are often reluctant to hire a director without prior relevant experience. Both employers and employees could learn a lot from the knight.


Hopping from Academic Technology to Admission


A few months ago I met Meeta Gaitonde, the former academic technology director at Phillips Brooks, a PK–5 day school in Menlo Park, CA. For nearly five years, she taught technology classes and helped teachers integrate technology into their curriculum. This past July, she became the school’s admission director.


What struck me the most from our conversations is how well suited she is for the role of chief marketing ambassador. From her experience as a technology administrator, she knows the academic program, the teachers, and the culture as well as anyone. For years she coached, mentored, and inspired faculty to innovate their teaching methodologies. She built relationships across the campus and forged partnerships with the external technology industry.


Now as admission director, she can speak from the heart about these experiences and tell prospective families about the transformation underway at her school. “Having been the tech coordinator across all grades, I know the curriculum inside and out,” says Gaitonde. “I can give the arc of the whole curriculum. The authenticity and the examples that I can throw out are huge.”


It is noteworthy that Gaitonde was interested in the job several years prior. After volunteering to serve on additional committees and projects outside her natural technology domain, her persistence finally paid off. This additional wait period is not unusual. However, as Gaitonde’s story shows, a little patience from a technology administrator and a little open-mindedness from a school’s leadership team can lead to a tremendously positive result for both sides.


A Path to Executive Leadership


I have seen countless technology directors pigeonholed as IT wizards or academic technology superstars for whom other areas of school leadership are sadly off limits. Thus, I am always pleased when schools like Phillips Brooks recognize that the skills required for educational technology leadership — creative thinking, project management, and relationship building — are exactly the skills needed to lead nontechnical departments as well.


Undoubtedly, Gaitonde will have a learning curve when it comes to the admission discipline itself. But after one or two cycles, she’ll have that covered, and then her background in technology management will help her dive deep. As Gaitonde notes, “A technology integrator has to think out of the box and build relationships with other people.” These days, what school doesn’t need a creative people-person generating new ideas to bolster enrollment?


Here’s the bonus for both sides: In a few years, Gaitonde will be even more qualified for an executive leadership role at her school, should the opportunity arise. I have an article coming out in Independent School magazine next month about the changing nature of school leadership, and how important it is for today’s heads of school to have some experience with innovation or technology. In many ways, the first step is to follow the example of Phillips Brooks and Gaitonde, by exploring and embracing lateral moves among mid-level managers.


I think it’s fitting that in chess, the knight is the only piece on the back row that can move forward at the very beginning of the game. All other pieces require those pesky pawns to first get out of the way. So, the next time you feel boxed in at your job, or the next time you are struggling to hire a strong leader, remember the lesson of the knight: Moving laterally is often the key to moving up.