7 Avoidable Career Limiting Moves
7 Avoidable Career Limiting Moves
June 13, 2013
Winston Wayne Wilson
When it comes to career limiting moves (“CLMs”), few of us are without blemish. While a career is not delicate, meaning there is some room for non-fatalistic errors, there are some career limiting moves that you should avoid. Here are seven of them:
- Playing chess on a football field. This CLM occurs when we assume that work is something that it is not and, therefore, we either don’t play the right game or we just don’t play the game at all. The reality is that your corporate life is a game and there are rules that you must observe. If your job is on a football field, play football, not chess. If you find that you keep getting trampled at work, then maybe you are guilty of playing chess on a football field. Also, the fact that you are now afraid of those big, burly, dirty, smelly football players, does not mean that you should run off the field and go find solace by sitting out the game as a spectator. Where there is a game, there is competition. Where there is competition, your goal should be to play aggressively and win. If you don’t have the stomach and fire in your belly for football, find another game that you can dominate and win. The key is that you must dominate something in your corporate life. A lot of us are scared by that thought because that’s probably not what the recruiter told us that the job was about. Furthermore, daddy and mommy probably did not quite describe it that way either. Therefore, sometimes we desperately want work to be a nice, friendly, cozy place, where we can curl up with our high-speed MacBook Air laptops, on a relaxing sofa, next to a fireplace, with soft-baked chocolate chip cookies infusing the air, as our families, friends and pets linger nearby and our bosses caringly pat our backs and give up a thank you check every other day, while telling us to please take a vacation. If you work for Google, maybe you get a little bit of that experience. Everywhere else, not so much. But here’s the deal, we all have dreams about being successful to take care of ourselves and our families. We go to work to make enough money to fulfill those dreams. The problem is that there are far more dreamers than there is money to fulfill the dreamers’ dreams. Thus, we must compete against other dreamers for financial security and retirement loot. We must have fire in the belly to compete. Even if you are self-employed you have to compete – actually, the competition is even more fierce then. Early hunters had to kill what they ate if they wanted themselves and their families to survive. Your corporate life represents a similar kind of hunting. When you go to work, you are hunting and gathering pieces of the American dream for yourself and your family. Therefore, you have to use whatever skills you have to gather as much as you can, for as long as you can. So, learn the rules, play the game or go home because fire in the belly gets the prize.
- Not helping yourself to the refrigerator. As mentioned above, we all want to be part of a nurturing work environment; however, invariably, corporations are not hotels with in-room dining and maid service. You have to help yourself by taking ownership of your career. You do this by, as early as possible in your career, finding the right mentors or sponsors; actively seeking guidance regarding the right technical, industry and leadership books to reads; and creating an inner circle that is comprised of advocates at as many levels above you as possible. You should also understand who, where and what can influence your career and focus on those people, places and things. Also, hang out with high performers; act, look and sound like a leader; and remember that criticism is not a fatal disease. When you start to falter, leverage your inner circle. Your inner circle should be comprised of people at work and outside work. It really does take a village to build a successful career. With the counsel and support from your career village, over time, you will find the confidence to go to work, walk up to the refrigerator and help yourself to all the goodies the company has to offer. Come on now, don’t let everybody else consume all the food and drinks in the corporate refrigerator while you politely sit back and think that someone is going to feed you. Did you not watch The Hunger Games? Well, corporate America can be just like that.
- Treating your work like a spokesperson. This is a very popular CLM. It occurs when we spend 100% of our time and effort surreptitiously creating a masterpiece that we think will speak for itself and, when unveiled, will launch our careers into the stratosphere. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case because companies have deadlines and typically don’t have endless time to wait as we develop our masterpieces amidst radio silence. Besides, many of the daily tasks we perform do not require masterpiece deliverables. They simply need to get done well enough. I am all for quality; however, quality should not be a self-imposed definition. Your company and its clients understand what quality is. Start with their definition. The bottom line is that your work product alone cannot do all the talking. When we become obsessed with our work products, we become emotional about them. When we become emotional about our work products, we sometimes miss the forest from the trees and we lose sight of the company’s strategy, our role and job expectations. I have seen someone resign because the person spent months working, sometimes until 2AM, to create an elaborate work product that a partner felt had missed the mark. The person felt that the partner just did not understand and appreciate how much time and effort was put into the deliverable. The person just could not work for a company that did not appreciate all the late nights which, by the way, no one was aware of. Maybe someone would have offered the person help or told the person that a less cumbersome deliverable would have been just fine. Working smartly rather hard is key and, as Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson would say, you cannot "try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at them." If you only work hard you will burn out. If you work smartly, you will cash out. We work smartly when we focus on finding the quickest, most effective ways to get to a company and client-defined quality product. Medicine is the perfect example of this – where doctors and scientists are constantly pushing the envelope to find faster, more cost effective ways of doing medical procedures that limit recovery time. In the end, as Chester Karrass points out, "In business you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate." Negotiation is a skill well worth learning because it involves speaking up on your own behalf instead of leaving it all up to your work product. We look at people who are great at negotiating their careers and roll our eyes while calling them all kinds of pejorative names. However, in order to build your brand, you must remember that if you do something noteworthy, make sure that someone noteworthy notices it. There is nothing wrong with that.
- Being unaware of the flip flop discount. This CLM occurs when we manage our emotions rather than manage our careers and we lose sight of the fact that all our career moves are being recorded on our resumes. For example, I saw an associate resign from public accounting after three months because of the “grueling” hours. OK, so maybe no one should work 11-hour days but, seriously, three months? This CLM is a tough one because we are all taught to go after what we want and we oftentimes seek to align where we work with what we are passionate about. Some of us take the risk, jump ship and land the perfect jobs; however, too often, the opposite occurs. Once you start to flip flop between jobs, your ability to commit to any job will weaken and you will also become more confused about what you want – not to mention your resume will start to look like a phone book. Here is what you have to remember: each new company that you go to will discount your experience from the prior firm if it is not related – and, thus, you generally start that new job close to the bottom of the ladder. For example, there will be a flip flop discount if you were an accountant for three years and then you decided to try marketing for two years, after which you tried medical school for six months and then dropped out so that you could explore Europe for eight months, after which you tried journalism for a year and a half and now you are back to trying out for a job as a manager in an accounting firm. You feel that, because you have more than six years of experience, it makes perfect sense that you should be a manager. The reality is that, while you see yourself as an ambitious, energetic world traveler with great work experience, the interviewer might see you as scattered, unsure, and not a good fit. Short of a miracle, or some great selling during your interview, my bet would be that you would not get the job as a manager. Maybe an Associate, if there is an extreme need; however, your employer will be worried about your ability to commit. Flip-flopping costs you money and time. So my advice is to focus at least the first ten years of your career on amassing consistent experience and skills that can create a good foundation for the rest of your career lifecycle.
- Taking hair grower from a bald headed man. This CLM occurs when we make career decisions based on the misguided advice of our inexperienced peers. Spending too much time with the disenchanted lunch room crowd will surely put a damper on your career. The over-exposure to the complainers or naysayers at work will oftentimes make you think that your career is worse than it really is. It takes the passage of time, internal networking with the right people, and a lot of exploration to really get to understand a company well. Your career is not built overnight and, so, the existence of hiccups, disappointments or setbacks, don’t mean the company is not worthwhile and that you will not become an effective leader in it. Stay focused on your goals and what you want to achieve in the company; align yourself with others who want to succeed; and avoid the negative lunch crowd. The other, more sinister, part of this CLM is that, because your corporate life is a competition, a dragon-eyed competitor might be telling you negative things about the company to psych you out. Why? Because sometimes the last man standing wins the prize. This “psyching out” of the competition sometimes occur in corporate cultures where there are bottlenecks – i.e. there are a lot of talented people vying for very limited promotions. Hence, if a competitor can get you to drop out of the race then that’s one less competitor for them to have to do head to head combat with. They can simply take an uneventful step to the next rung on the corporate ladder - kind of like when a tennis player gets injured, and taken out of the game, in the first set of the semi-finals of Wimbledon and the opponent simply walks to the final round without breaking a sweat. The key here is that athletes don’t take winning advice from their blood-thirsty opponents. Why should you?
- Walking away from your development. Oftentimes we want the money but not the responsibility that comes with our careers. When conflicts arise and the burden of the career gets too heavy, we call it quits and walk away from an opportunity to develop a marketable skill, namely conflict management. We typically walk away from our development because we are unaware that a career is a journey along which we must consistently gather a collection of hard, soft and industry skills that make us become marketable, effective leaders of thought and of men. In short, a career is really about the gathering of marketable skills. That means that just about every experience you have at work, the good, the bad and the ugly, can develop a marketable skill that will help you down the road. Marketable skills typically include: technical, industry, leadership, communication, negotiation, conflict management, time management, project management, systemic/strategic thinking, people management, and self/emotions management. Many people accumulate years more than they accumulate marketable skills. While the bulky years might look great on your resume, a shrewd interviewer would also focus on the skills you’ve acquired. Companies can automate tasks but they cannot automate skills. So, make sure that you are always prepared to articulate what well-honed skills you bring to the corporate table.
- Shower, shave, go to work. This CLM is the easiest to commit but it is also one of the most damaging to our careers. This CLM occurs when our greatest involvement in our career is simply showing up to work looking clean. That’s it. After that, from 9AM to 5PM, it’s radio silence. We fall into a routine of doing daily tasks, without thinking much about what we are doing. We also become passive about our careers and we wait around for someone to guide us. Over time, we become oblivious about the purpose of a career, which as mentioned above, is to actively gather marketable skills. If you don’t actively manage your career you won't have one. Also, if you treat your career like a job you may wind up with neither a job nor a career. In this economy, it is an honor to have a career, so treat it like a privilege. Therefore, you should always try to come to work with energy and enthusiasm; seek to understand your role and expected contribution in the organization and then leverage your best skills to exceed those expectations day in and day out; and bring something special to your job no matter how simple or routinized it is. If you start to become invisible and forgettable at work, no one will mind giving you a pink slip.
My challenge for you today is to take a fresh look at your career to see if you are committing any of these career limiting moves. Like I said above, in this economy, it is an honor to have a career so treat it like a privilege. Get excited about it, even if you think it’s perfunctory. When there were lulls in my career, I would try to find the joy elements in it and capitalize on them. For example, I would turn getting routinized tasks completed into a game to see which team member could get the most tasks completed within some randomly designated time frame. The winner would get some silly prize. It was what I referred to as “The Monotony Games”. It was fun for them and it was fun for me. More importantly, the work got done quickly and with a high degree of quality. Thirteen years later, even though we have all moved on, I am still great friends with the people who participated in those Monotony Games. Remember, the only person who can spice up your career is you. Be creative. If you need some tips, reach out to me. Enjoy your day.