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The Most Common Career Killer

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One of the most common career killers I see on a regular basis is the result of an improper mindset.  This career killer is so common, especially at low levels of an organization, because it is a result of getting poor advice. This advice is so bad that I view it as an act of managerial malfeasance to give it to employees. So, what is it? It is the concept of “if I just put my head down and work hard, good things will happen.”

I bet, at some point in your career (if not currently in your career) you have been given this advice. Why is it so damaging? For a number of reasons.

Reason 1:

First and foremost, to understand why this mindset is so damaging, you need to think like a manager. What does the ideal employee look like to a manager? Basically, someone who is comes in every day, gets their job done efficiently and effectively, and seems happy in their position. I wish one hundred percent of my team did this all day every day. Why, then, is it a “career killer?” Because managers have no reason to promote these employees! Think about it. If you work for me, consistently deliver and never complain/seem happy, I will assume you are happy and I have no incentive to change my team.

As a manager, I actively seek to sit down formally at least twice per year (of course I meet informally with employees more often) to ask, specifically, “how are things going” and “what do you see as next steps in your career.” For most employees, they respond “things are going well” to the first question and “I am happy in my current role” to the second question. How do I read this as a manager? That everything is fine, I have another happy employee, no change needed.

Reason 2:

Finding, on-boarding, and training talent takes a lot of time, money and effort. The rule of thumb is that it takes at least 6 months for a new employee to be fully trained and as productive as an existing employee. What this means is that making changes in the organization is a headache: it is disruptive, time-consuming, and doesn’t always pan out. More good reasons for managers to have a bias NOT to make changes to their team.

Reason 3:

A lot of times, people cannot get ahead because the timing is not right or they are too valuable in their current role. Look at points one and two above: if you are competent and happy, your manager has little incentive to change your role. Even if you are ready (and your manager agrees) you are not going anywhere if there is nobody who can step into your role. Yes, succession planning is a responsibility for your manager, but there are things you can do to message to him/her that making a change for you will not negatively impact the broader team. Remember, everyone in the corporate world is not paid to work, but to get results. Anything that threatens results will be problematic.

Reason 4:

The fourth reason is very important and I think a lot of managers intuitively understand it, but do a bad job of, (a) actively looking for it in their talent pool, and (b) they struggle with it themselves: What makes you successful in your current role is not necessarily what will make you successful in your next role. This is a VERY common career pitfall even for senior and C-level executives.

To see what I mean, consider a couple of real world examples:

  1. The organization I currently work for (roughly $100M acquired subsidiary of a $3.5B publicly traded company) recently hired in a Vice President of Sales from a much larger direct competitor in the same industry. My personal approach to joining a new company (I will elaborate on this point in a dedicated post in the future) is to not make any major decision/opinions in the first 90 days. Rather, I take the time to understand the business, they key players and processes. My starting point is that if something doesn’t make sense, I assume that people in the organization are inherently rational and, as such, there are reasons why things are the way they are, so I try to learn the context. After 90 days, I share my conclusions the team, present my proposed changes, and try go generate buy-in and support. The new sales leader mentioned above did not share this philosophy. On his second day in the job (literally) he restructured the sales team (without having met everyone on his team!!!) added new channel partners (which pissed off our existing, loyal partners) and proposed all sorts of new strategies. Having been in the same industry for many years, and knowing where we hired him from (a division of an $80B global, public company), within the first week I realized he was trying to execute the exact same growth strategy of the company he came from. A strategy that isn’t applicable to our unique business and  will not help us achieve our growth and strategic aspiration. It annoyed customers and his sales team. Needless to say, six months into his new job, he is struggling mightily and almost certainly will lose his job in the next couple of months. In short, he tried to apply the same strategies and approach from his old job in a company with different goals and a (radically) different culture.
  2. Another example: The $100B public company I worked at prior to my current role hired a new segment CEO (responsible for about $30B in revenue). This segment CEO had a reputation for efficiency–he came from a smaller segment in the same company that was “fat and happy.”  In this smaller segment, he restructured the business, expanded the margins, and was rewarded with the bigger segment CEO role stated above. He was so highly regarded, the Corporate Chairman and CEO stated publicly on quarterly earnings calls that this leader (lets call him Mr. A) was “on the short list” to became the next Chairman and CEO after the current CEO was set to step down (with a roughly $35M per year compensation package). So, what did Mr. A do after being promoted? He immediately started restructuring and pushed out an “efficiency campaign” to make the business more profitable. Did the business become more profitable? Of course it did. What was the result? Mr. A was fired less than 3 years later. Why? The $30B segment he inherited was already wildly profitable–it needed growth! The result of his actions was to make an already very profitable business slightly more profitable while killing its growth (from 6-8% per year to 0%). Mr. A didn’t realize the new job was a test of the breadth of his ability and he failed spectacularly. When faced with a new challenge (how to ignite growth) he went back to what he knew (efficiency).

So, if you want to move up in your career from lower level to manager, or from manager to executive, what should you do?

The following is what I recommend correlated to the points above.

Recommendation 1:

If you are ready for a change, actively communicate to your manager you are ready for more challenge and responsibility. There are many ways to do this, but an honest conversation during a review is likely the best. Be respectful, bring concrete examples of successes and mastery of your current role as “proof points” of your value to the team and ability to deliver. Also, actively ask for more responsibility and intellectual curiosity in other “next step” roles or, better yet, ask your manager “what can I do to prove to you I am ready for a larger/expanded role in the organization, and what can I do today to prepare for such a role.” Many people (especially introverts) are uncomfortable having a conversation like this, but I promise you (as a manager and an executive) this is VERY IMPRESSIVE to me. It shows you are taking initiative in your career and will force your manager to start thinking about where you fit in the organization. Even if your manager responds with something like “I don’t think you are ready for a next role now, or in the future.” Don’t fret! Although this seems demotivating, this is really a message that you have “plateaued” in your current company and should probably look outside for other opportunities. Think of how much better this feedback is than spending the next 5+ years in your role secretly hoping for a promotion when your manager knows you will not get one.

Recommendations 2 & 3:

Actively groom your replacement and (subtlety) message a list of potential back-fill candidates to your manager. If it is painful and disruptive for a manager to make a change in the organization, proactively make this easier for him/her. Drop messages like “I am really impressed how the [new person] handled XYZ situation… if they keep up the good work, I can see them being a valuable asset to my current team.” Take new or more junior people under your wing and coach them. View it as good preparation for being a manager (at the end of the day, this is what we spend a lot of time on anyway). A MAJOR pitfall to avoid is getting into the “tenure mindset” of “I am the longest tenure person in the group so I am ‘next in line’ for a promotion… everyone else is ‘competition.’” This does not work. In fact, doing this will sabotage your career. Managers and executives need to collaborative in order to be successful and if you send vibes that you perceive others as a threat or are not collaborative…guess what, you will NEVER be promoted.

Recommendation 4:

Seek out potential next job moves and study them. Have informational interviews with people in similar roles and ask them what attributes are necessary for success. Be open-minded and understand that what has made you successful to this point in your career is likely NOT what will make you successful in the next role. The more information you can get, the more successful you are likely to be. Once you have a list of what is required, actively seek out real-world, on the job projects/opportunities to build and demonstrate those skill sets. Once you have some successes under your belt, share them with your manager–I promise he/she will be impressed.
So, in short, don’t fall into the “if I just put my head down and work hard good things will happen” mindset. Actively seek out new and exciting roles, communicate your interest to you manager, prep your back-fill, and prove you are ready to excel in the new role. If you do this, I promise you will turbo charge your career.

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