In a recent trip to Munich, I ran into a young professional, Alize, who expressed her disdain for the corporate world. I was at the airport and was sitting down reading my book on Personal Branding. Yes, sometimes I actually read my own work. Anyhow, she noticed what I was reading and asked “does that crap really work?” I appreciate that kind of candor. I told her what I do for a living and then replied “it can.” Then, she launches off into her story. She felt she had always gone above and beyond all activities she engaged in. “No matter what I do, it doesn’t seem to matter. I’m tired of working my butt off. Maybe I should just quit. No one seems to care anyhow.” Do you know how she feels? I certainly do. High achievers also have high stress and if not treated, it will eventually break you down.   Here’s a little advice on avoiding the mental breakdown.

Alize had been working very hard for many years with little forward mobility. She felt she had outperformed her peers through the development of impressive credentials. Not only did she do her day job but she was also an author, speaker, and entrepreneur and did some consulting work on the side. Alize was bursting at the seams with skills. She had been in the same company for 9 years, pushing very hard every single day to make an impact on the organization and her career. Unfortunately, the only thing she got for her efforts was a huge drain on her energy, motivation and passion. You know the feeling, right?

I said to Alize, “Just QUIT.” By the look on her face, she wasn’t expecting that. I went on to explain that most high achievers work hard for many years, often in the same company. They also work just as hard outside the company. There are several problems with this. First, you run the risk of burnout.   I know this illness very well. I told her of my experience about ten or so years ago when I was working on my PhD in Engineering, writing my first book and working full-time while supporting my wife and three kids. There were periods where I had no sense of time. I was just so busy moving from my studies to work to family that I didn’t really stop consider whether the sun was up or down. It didn’t matter. I had a lot to do and not enough time to complete it all.  Burnout is tough on you, not just the physical aspect (i.e. stress) but mostly is the impact to your drive and determination. If you let burnout go too far, you may just simply quit and give up on your dreams. You’ll fall in line with the other robots and live a minimalist life. I know you’re thinking surely such a thing doesn’t happen to high achievers, because high motivation runs in their blood. It’s who they are. But….it does happen. After years of working your butt off and failing to get the rewards you feel you deserve, you become cynical. You also feel like you begin losing control and your advice means nothing to anyone. You feel isolated and unsupported. Your work becomes noticeably off, considering it already was out of balance.

The second problem is that Alize didn’t really have a plan or strategy for her career growth. She was just working hard and hoping someone in management would recognize it and reward her. I wasn’t sure how long she was planning to continue with that approach but obviously burnout was going to be the reward she would get. I don’t think working hard in one company for a long time is a bad thing, as there are numerous benefits to such an approach. They challenge is that it’s hard to predict when or if you’ll get a big break. But if this is your approach, you need to plan milestones to achieve and celebrate each accomplishment. Your career will last a long time. It’s actually a length of time so great we can’t really comprehend its entirety. So, we need to establish goals that we can achieve in time periods we can understand.

Alize needed to quit. She has to stop and take a break.   When you totally commit yourself to your work, you’ll eventually find that it’s all you got. And if it isn’t rewarded, you’ll eventually lose your passion. Most of us wait for rewards to come from the outside. Me? I understand that organizations don’t really care if I’m an author.   They don’t really care that I’m a public speaker. These are great skills to have but if my job doesn’t depend on them greatly, then the only person who will see great value in these skills will be me. I won’t waste a lot of years of my life trying to convince my management that these skills are worth more than they really think they are worth. I may still continue doing them because they bring me some sense of achievement and recognition I’m not getting from my company.

Another big program for many high achievers is that they choose to get all of their rewards for the efforts from the company they work for. Alize admitted that she certainly did. After so many years of little reward, she grew bitter towards the company. The reality we have to face is that our career isn’t on the minds of managers. They are probably more worried about their own career. Alize realized that she needed to quit putting all of her happiness in the success of her job. If after nine years, she didn’t get the rewards she was looking, did it make since to keep working and waiting or should she seek some happiness elsewhere?

Growing a career is difficult to say the least. Many times the things that are getting in our way are the things we put in the way, such as our habits. Sometimes you need to step back and take a close look at what is really working for you. This may mean quitting a few things that just aren’t giving you a return. It will be a mental challenge because you are already too busy and will feel like you’re adding more work on yourself. But what if it starts giving you results? Here are a few things I’ve learned from clients over the years:

  • Quit putting all of your happiness in the success of your job….consider a life outside of work.
  • Quit waiting for someone to recognize your achievements….celebrate them yourself.
  • Quit complaining about your lack of progress….go make something happen.
  • Quit believing your barriers are real….run at them head-on and find out for sure.
  • Quit using the same strategy that doesn’t work….try something new.
  • Quit looking for a fast-track to success….most paths take years of hard work.
  • Quit making the wrong impression….if you want to be a big player, dress like one.
  • Quit playing with your phone….give people your attention and you’ll get theirs.
  • Quit multitasking….do your best work by focusing on the task at hand.
  • Quit leading by email….relationships with people are more effective in getting work done.
  • Quit relying on your performance only….learn to market yourself.
  • Quit trying to create your own success….build a team of supporters.

“Quit” isn’t a bad word. It should be a sign that you’re paying attention to what you are doing and the return you are getting on your efforts. The pace of business today is fast and always changing. This is an indication that your strategies for personal success will need to change too.

So what would you QUIT today?

The Future for Executive Recruitment

Have you ever wondered how organizations find their next leaders? In the June Harvard Business Review, Claudio Fernandez-Araoz discusses what he calls the new era of talent spotting. In this article, he provides his insight into how organizations need to be seeking top talent based on today’s amorphous nature of business.   In this post, we’ll provide a look at what companies are looking for today, which you’ll certainly want to know if you have plans to become an organizational leader. We’ll take a look at the various eras of development of talent spotting and make some predictions on what the future holds for you.

The Physical Era. The first era of talent spotting, according to Claudio, was purely visual. For thousands of years, work was comprised of tasks that required a lot of physical labor. Therefore, if you wanted to get it done faster, you would choose people who appeared to be big and strong. Even though these physical attributes aren’t as critical to the work we do today, some attributes are still considered to be valuable. For example, height is apparently important as the Fortune 500 leaders, as well as military leaders, are 2.5 inches taller than the average American.

The Intellectual Era. The next era of finding talent is the era that I’ve grown up in; that is, an era where education, experience and performance are important. These filters were required because work had become standardized and professionalized. Work was broken down into tasks that required certain skills. These skills were easily identified and could be assessed on a resume and during an interview. For up and coming leaders, it was easy to identify a career path and the credentials needed. You had to go to college and earn your degree. You had to engage in professional organizations and extracurricular activities to show you were well rounded. Then, you had to put your expertise to work and create some major accomplishments that organizations could verify. Your past performance was a predictor of future performance. Fortunately for professionals in this era, their credentials and accomplishments were valued in similar roles across a wide range of organizations, allowing a flexibility of movement from company to company. According to Claudio, this era is gone.

The Potential Era. Here’s where we are today. Corporations are amorphous, which is an intentional lack of structure that supposedly allows the company to change to meet market needs. The structure we knew in the previous era no longer exists. Claudio refers to this new environment as VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). Corporate strategy, once defined in a five year plan, now changes so frequently that such plans aren’t even created.  In this kind of environment, employees with fixed skill sets and expertise are useful for a short period of time. Employee value comes from an ability to move from one skill to the next in an efficient and effective manner. Today, companies will be looking for those superstar all-purpose players; that is, anyone who can do anything, anywhere, at any given time in and in any manner required (which explains the shortage in such talent).

So how do organizations go about finding such potential candidates? They measure ‘potential.’ Claudio suggests managers must learn to assess prospective employees on five factors. These factors are the right motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination. While Claudio admits to a method with 85% predictive accuracy, organizations are going to struggle with it, especially with new college graduates. But first, let’s consider the working professional.

Most companies don’t have any “high potential” programs to identify such talent in their existing workforce. Sure, the big companies do but the world isn’t full of big companies. It’s mostly small and medium enterprises (SME), who can’t afford to create such formal programs. (Personally I think SMEs will have more of these high potential people anyhow as you have to wear many hats in a small company). But, for entertainment purposes, let’s just consider the big companies.

Now, we know most of the big companies only hire the top talent from the best universities. My first question would be “do these top programs teach motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement and determination?” My initial thought is probably not. I didn’t want to ask any programs to respond to this question for fear of getting a canned response, so I thought it might be interesting to see what graduates and students of top programs would suggest.

Every couple of years, Business week surveys the best schools and invites students to provide open comments on their experiences. Here are some interesting comments from the class of 2012. At Columbia Business School, students complained about the lack of outreach by career services, the lack of university resources dedicated to the business school and the acceptance of too many ‘connected’ applicants. “Too many students are ‘sons of,’” claimed one MBA graduate. “They are plain dumb but got in because dad or mom wrote a big check to the school. This is not acceptable.”

At Duke, an MBA student asserted that the students could be “a little too party-oriented and immature” which sometimes led to mediocre classroom discussions. “Faculty and staff could hold students even more accountable for not taking the academic portion of school seriously enough,” stated another. “We should stop babying people and start really pushing people to be great.”

At the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, graduates thought that lax grading policies in classes led to a less-than-ideal learning environment.

In talking with a friend who graduated from Stanford, the grading policies were not very motivating for students. In short, the top 10% of the class got an ‘A’ and the bottom 10% got the door. So, everyone aimed for being better than the bottom 10% in what this graduate called a “quest for mediocrity.”

On and on this goes….NYU’s alumni network isn’t involved in the school, Wharton has poor quality in teaching, and INSEAD students felt the professors should take their own classes to see how bad things really are. Now, we must realize this was an open forum for complaining, but it still creates enough concern that even the top programs aren’t going to create potential leaders with the 5 great ingredients. I’m not just picking on the top programs but they do have a tendency to create many of the graduates that take top positions in big companies. So, do we really think these companies are selecting ‘potential’ employees based on these ingredients? No, but this might be part of Claudio’s strategy.

Ok, I took too long to say that I don’t think MBA programs will create a talent pool with such ‘potential.’ To make the situation even more difficult, I don’t think companies will be able to develop these ingredients either. Having spent many years working with MBAs, I haven’t seen anyone turn an underachiever into an overachiever. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but it certainly isn’t the norm.

The Aura Era. This era is yet to arrive and is a prediction based on the current trends in finding top talent. The executive of the future will possess such extraordinary abilities that they can be detected only by those sensitive to such emanations. There have been many movies in the past and even in the present that have alluded to these abilities. More recently, the movie ‘Divergent’ depicted a society where people are divided into factions based on virtues, as determined by a unique serum-based aptitude test. The ‘divergents’ has values of all the factions, think independently and aren’t easily controlled by the government. One of my favorite movies that addresses the detection of extraordinary abilities in others is Star Wars. I imagine one day you’ll go into a job interview with Darth Vader. He’ll raise his hand towards you and will sense your JETI abilities. You know his famous words “The force is strong in this one.” For my UK fans, I imagine your future will be determined by a Harry Potter style sorting hat. You’ll simply walk in the room and they’ll place the hat on your head, which will declare you a leader or a follower. The interesting thing about these techniques is that they don’t consider any of the things we currently consider to be important. Is there a leader gene we can test for? The challenge for the professional is that we see organizations moving away from parameters that can be measured and verified easily, which can lead to many of the issues we see today (e.g. nepotism, favoritism). The good news is that your interviews won’t require any preparation time. In the future, you’ll either have it or you won’t.

At this point, I really hope that organizations don’t attempt to start hiring talent based on potential, as I think it will add an undue level of complexity to an already challenged process. In the end, it’s likely to do little to change how things really work. Potential isn’t something you just pick up at the grocery store. You probably have a history of indicators that show you can do great things. Seems like that should be sufficient, right? But if it isn’t, I’m in the running for big promotion as my skills are untapped! I suggest that organizations be a little more stringent on the performance of the people they hire. If you aren’t doing a good job, then you should be given an opportunity to improve before being released. If companies want to hire like professional sports programs, then they should also fire the same way. If a leader isn’t working, there’s no need to punish everyone for their shortcomings.

So what do you think? Will hiring managers adopt this practice? Will ‘potential’ become the new currency for career success?