Young managers are taught to think that they should ‘take charge’ of their career, that they should purposefully plan what they wish to be, what milestones they should achieve and by when. The reality is completely different. There are more factors that are out of your control than within. This does not mean that all planning is useless, but this does leave many managers in an anxious state.
Your career goal is your statement of intent and desire. The company you work for, the boss’s judgment of your work, your seniors’ views on your potential, the opportunity that develops in the wider economy—all these have a strong influence. So your own plan has only a limited influence.
Once you recognize, and more importantly accept this, you can start to do things right rather than do the right things. There is a difference.
Doing the right things means planning a desired outcome for each action or initiative. Doing things right means to stretch and do your best and leave the results to turn out the way they will.
Dave is the chairman of a large American corporation. When I met him some time ago, he told me a story about his career.
He was a young accountant in GE some 25 years ago. He was working three levels below the company CFO, who in turn reported to the legendary chairman, Jack Welch. One of Dave’s tasks was to compile a statement of the company’s forward projection of sales and profits—by year, by country and by Business Unit.
It was a mass of numbers and young Dave could not imagine what use it could be to anyone. He enquired about its utility from his senior managers, but was advised to do what he had been assigned. The statement was being produced for many years, so would he please continue?
The chairman was trying to tear down the bureaucratic culture of a very traditional company. He had, as is well known, acquired the label, ‘neutron’ to symbolize his bombarding the company with his change agenda. One day, the chairman received this complex statement, showing the company’s 5 year projection of sales and profits.
The chairman was incensed, so he called for the young man, who was ‘producing this rubbish’. A nervous Dave appeared before him and was too awed to answer the obvious question. He was packed off with the statement ‘that smart guys like you should not do this kind of thing.’ Presumably, the CFO’s department was roasted over the coals, and Dave received confirmatory instructions to stop the compilation soon thereafter.
Dave wondered why his seniors had brushed aside his question on the same matter, and responded with logic and alacrity to the chairman’s hollering! Perhaps you have had such an experience already in your workplace.
At a company reception a few months later, the chairman was surrounded by his officers. He noticed young Dave, lurking around. He summoned him and enquired whether he had stopped compiling that useless statement. One of the seniors present interjected to clarify that it was Dave who had asked questions about the futility of such a statement.
“But you never told me that earlier”, said a surprised chairman. Dave looked shy, and remained silent.
Some weeks later Dave’s big boss, the CFO, gave Dave a double promotion and applauded his courage in not letting down his team under the chairman’s pressure. Of course, Dave was very competent. To his surprise, this unplanned episode told others about his character, which was not at all what Dave was trying to highlight. Character is such an intangible, yet important, part of a leader’s qualities. Dave’s career advanced in GE and he went on to become the chairman of another company.
So you should remember to do things right rather than only the right things. And while doing so, remember that character is at least as important as competence. The world has enough competent people, but not quite enough of managers with character.