Category Archives: Career Advice

Why Good Leaders Go Bad

Have you ever wondered how some executives actually got to their level of success? I know I have run into a few that I felt probably needed help tying their own shoes. While you will certainly find managers who shouldn’t be in a management position, there are managers who were great at times but have changed in ways that have made them less effective. In this post, I’d like to identify a few things that high achievers need to be aware of to avoid going from great to bad. These situations are very important for you to recognize now as they are silent killers of performance that most people never see coming.

Impostor Syndrome. This is a situation where a high achiever moves away from serving their talents to serving their fears. Maybe it’s a fear of failure, fear of success, procrastination, workaholism, or perfectionism. This fear creates an enormous amount of anxiety which triggers the transition. For high achievers, success often comes rapidly. Sometimes it occurs too rapidly. If the rate of success is too quick, then the conscious mind won’t be able to analyze past performance to rationalize why the success has occurred. They simply have no memories of how they earned their way up. There is also another problem. As they develop the higher level skills to manage organizations, they lose their more detail technical skills. Technical memory is reduced and they recognize that. This is where the anxiety comes into play. The brain, amygdala in this case, activates the anxiety out of an inability to remember what made you successful or how the technical things work. This is a disruption to the thought process, leaving the leader with a constant focus on their fear. Is it a little embarrassing that a leader of a technical organization doesn’t even know how their own products work? Sure it is. Highly stressed high achievers are aware of the stress but not their brains handling of it. At certain levels of stress, the brain only runs on the unconscious mind, shutting down the conscious mind’s activities. As Srinivasan Pillay, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says “It is like a figure skater who suddenly questions his or her flow on the ice and starts to stumble, or a musician who loses the spontaneity and starts to play mechanically.”

Mirrored-self misidentification. This is a fairly common in highly successful leaders. It’s a situation where, after being submerged in a problem for a long period of time, they don’t recognize themselves anymore. In extreme cases, affected persons are unable to recognize their image in the mirror. While it may look like them, they don’t really think it is. On a more subtle level, executives can get wrapped up in complex problems for too long. Even if they are successful, they won’t recognize the success, no matter how much they are praised for it. Their behavior begins to show narcissistic tendencies in that they begin to worry that others will see them differently. They may want to represent a certain set of social values when they really don’t. For example, when John Edwards, a 2008 U.S. Democratic presidential contender and former South Carolina Senator, was interviewed about his adulterous affair, he admitted that narcissism played a role in his unethical behavior. In short, great success can easily confuse a leader and convince them that any unethical behavior isn’t really unethical. The “mirroring” problem is a form of self-deception, the paradoxical capacity to deceive oneself regarding the truth in the process of protecting self-image.

Summit Syndrome. Sometimes great leaders move upwards at a neck breaking pace and then, come to a halt. They suddenly become “stuck.” A leader who has mastered their position and accomplishes their tasks with ease can become bored. They may push to achieve some unheard of stellar result, only to crash and burn. Eventually, they retire, move on or fall back down the ladder. The problem is that many of these high achievers are high sensation seekers and monotony deprives them of novelty. The brain can respond by reducing cross talk between hemispheres of the brain. This leads to neural atrophy and eventually a decline in performance. Essentially, it’s a situation where a thrill seeker is placed in a position of a complete lack of excitement. It’s not a fun place and their behavior will eventually communicate that.

So there you have it. These are just a few things that can make a good executive go bad. If you watch the news any, you can certainly find evidence to support my claims. The problem with these situations is that they are often unnoticed and untreated, until the executives sink the ship. Hopefully, you can consider these in your own career development. Coaching is one of the best ways to get yourself out of such compromising positions, but this requires you to recognize some of the signs and seek support.   This is a great reason for you to establish a good network of professionals to support your career development. You’ll need people who will consistently be open and honest about your performance.

Cheap plug coming….Stay tuned for our next ebook on mentoring. Even great success can bring your career to a halt. A mentoring team can help you build great success and they can also help you keep it!

Mentors: Be careful who you ask

We are very close to releasing our next ebook on Mentoring. We’ve been talking with a lot of people to put this together and when we do, questions always arise. One question that seemed to come up too often when we spoke with MBAs is “who should I tap on the shoulder to be my mentor?” So, we decided to share a little information from the book prior to release. Here is one interesting idea that came from our research on Mentors.

The 5 Year Span. Over the past decade, we’ve interviewed thousands of professionals around the globe, including professors, entrepreneurs, students, millionaires and billionaires. We’ve asked for their advice on many topics. One interesting fact that was noticeable with the interviewees is that they had trouble recalling or predicting information, in detail, several years away from where they currently are. For example, we’ve spoken to billionaires at length about their path to success. Many of these individuals were older baby-boomers and had difficulty recalling the barriers they faced when they began their start into entrepreneurship. What we learned from all of these interviews is that most people can’t advise you effectively about your situation if they are too far removed from it. A 2015 MBA student may not gain useful advice from a 1995 MBA graduate, as the student will want details that likely can’t be recalled. The answer to this problem is to choose someone closer to your situation, within 5 years. So a 2015 graduate would consider connecting with graduates no earlier than 2010 graduation year. This is just a rule of thumb for gathering advice about your current situation.

Career Timeline
Career Timeline

It’s unlikely that you’ll run into the problem of having too many mentors. Most professionals don’t have mentors and don’t know the value of them. In fact, most professionals don’t plan their career. Mentors can be invaluable to your career. Our clients have mentioned that many of their jobs have come at the hand of their mentors.

To use mentors, it’s helpful to find numerous mentors with experience that spans across the entire breadth of your career. You’ll want to befriend professionals who are in the same stage you are in. Then, you’ll want mentors who are a few years ahead of you and so on. If you only have one or two mentors, you might be missing out on advice that is directly applicable to where you are, leaving you with the burden to determine when you need to use the info.

That’s it….stay tuned for the release of our next ebook.

Testing the Job Market

We recently played around with the recruiting process by looking at a few resources that we are asked about. Here’s what we did and the results we found.

Retained Executive Search Firms. These firms find candidates for specific companies with job openings who retain their services. We identified the top 10 firms in Atlanta and sent them several resumes to understand what would happen. We also contacted some of their executives directly through email to pitch our situation and get a response.   The response from going online, setting up an account and submitting resumes was as expected. It was simple and nothing happened. However, once we began sending email directly to their leadership with our credentials attached, something unexpected happen. Before I begin to describe their response, it’s important to note that most of the emails we sent did not get a response. Repeated emails did not improve that either.

For the managers that did respond, we were surprised to see that in a few cases, they suggested we contact another company. One response was “well, that’s only about 20% of our business. You should go check out another company.” They did provide the name of a company. Over and over again, the firm’s leaders did not provide anything useful at all. They either said, sign up on our website or go somewhere else. That’s not what we were hoping for but in this little study, it seemed to be the standard response.

After we spent a little time on their website, reviewing their openings, it became clear that most of these firms serve the academic market. Obviously, academia has become a huge market. So much so that most firms we connected with listed academic positions as their most recent accomplishments.

VC firms. This resource isn’t something most people chase but it does exist. Venture Capitalist firms fund startups, early stage organizations, expansion, and mergers and acquisitions. While they typically work closely with entrepreneurs, they also stay connected to a group of managers and leaders who make themselves available to run the companies they fund for some length of time, which can be months to years. We looked up 5 firms in Atlanta and tried to reach out to them. Only one response from an administrator that said they didn’t deal with hiring managers. We also tried to reach them directly but no replies were provided.

Executives.  We know that many executives use search firms to help them find their next big assignment. So, we tapped the shoulders of a few executives to ask who they use and would they make a recommendation to their search firm for us. Strange thing about these search firms is that they don’t just work with anyone. The best way to get in is to have a referral. We tested this a few times and had good results with the executives that would work with us. You may find, however, that executives don’t like to give up information about how they get their jobs. It’s like showing your cards to everyone in a poker game. Your challenge with this resource is finding executives who will help you. This will almost be a mass marketing exercise, meaning that you will need to reach out to many executives to get a little bit of support.

Headhunters.  These are the free ones. You know, the resume banks. They work directly with companies who pay them to make recommendations for interviews by perusing through a stack of resumes they’ve collected. In our interactions with several, we received lots of encouragement from them with phrases like “if we see a match, we’ll get in touch with you.” To be successful with these guys, you need to build relationships with them over time. Otherwise, it’s a passive approach to finding a job.

Job Boards. This resource includes sites like Monster, ExecuNet, Linkedin, Ladders, etc. Many of these sites have a free sign up or are free altogether. We’ve tried out a few and didn’t find anything useful from them. We basically confirmed the old age that “anything worth having won’t be given to you.” Free service on these sites just means no service. Some of these sites have pay for service options as well but we found most of these to focus more on helping you with your resume, interview tips and job search methods. I think you can find most of that for free on the Internet already.

If there is one thing you need to know about the job search is that it is a business for most of the resources you will use. These resources have to be paid and this funding often comes from the companies doing the hiring. Don’t ever get the idea that they are working specifically for you, even when you are paying them. These companies make money by promoting the idea that they have influence on the companies (and maybe some do). Your best bet is to network with employees inside the company and gain their support in promoting you to hiring managers. Before you start the networking process, make sure you have a well-defined personal brand. Selling yourself is difficult today and if you don’t have a well-tuned communication plan, people will lose interest in you. Oh, you may also want to consider using many of the old techniques such as actually meeting people and talking about opportunities. Make it personal. I know we all consider the job search to be formal and rigid, but it isn’t. It’s often informal and very personal.

5 Steps to Maintaining Sufficient Career Motivation

Staying motivated throughout the life of your career is challenging to say the least. There are so many forces that will drive you away from career satisfaction. The major problem is that we are always changing. I don’t just mean you will change, I also mean that your environment will change as well. I hear arguments all the time that you need to make sure you have a good “fit” for the new company you want to join. While I agree with this idea, it’s important to understand that organizations change too.   In fact, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) seem to be very common today as M&A activity has increased by 42% in the last year and now rivals records set for such activity in 2007. Even though M&A activity is exciting to Wall Street, it can wreak havoc on your career. Many years ago I worked in an organization that was acquired twice in 18 months. There was so much change occurring that I didn’t know who I was working for from month to month. After each acquisition, restructuring always occurs. Luckily, most companies don’t engage in this much change but organizations do seem to be changing their culture to meet the rapidly changing demands of the marketplace. All of this change will not be handled well by the companies involved and will place considerable pressure on your career plans.

You’ve probably already seen your current organization’s responses to some of these tensions in the marketplace. One organization I worked with in assessing their cultural transformations had flattened their organization considerably to the point they had no organizational chart, which was their response to increasing speed to market by pushing decision-making to the lowest level. As you can imagine, this environment has little tolerance for failure and isn’t one of your best learning environments. Then, there’s the factor of flexibility, where organizations are responding to both globalization and diversity forces. These forces are pushing employees to be more cognizant of different cultures and, at the same time, are allowing employees to be more flexible in their working arrangements (e.g. telecommuting).   These forces have induced the need for greater communication skills as employees are now communicating with individuals directly, anywhere in the organization, as opposed to communicating through “proper channels.”   Globalization, diversity, flexibility, flatness, and networking are huge stresses for organizations today that won’t go away. Most struggle to optimize these factors, which has a tendency to complicate matters considerably. In other words, companies will continue to transform themselves for as far into the future as we can see.

Therefore, you have to develop a strategy to deal with a lot of change. Many years ago, your career was driven by your own needs, but this was a time when companies were more stable. It was easy to assess a new company’s culture and decide whether you liked it or not because it didn’t change much. Once you were in the company, creating a long career was easy, assuming your needs didn’t change too often. Today, your job satisfaction is determined more by your ability to deal with your company’s changing needs, not yours. This makes figuring out a viable career path very difficult. Here are few things I’ve learned over the years that will help you strike a balance with these seemingly unstoppable forces.

Understand what you need. So few people think about what they really work for. We often have some vague sense of what would make us happy but we fail to define it in enough detail that we can create a plan to achieve it or always make sure we are working towards it. Without such an understanding, our success becomes a victim of circumstances. So what motivates you? I’m not talking about getting a raise every six months and a promotion every eighteen months. I mean you need to know what makes you happy at work. What motivates you to be your best? Is it challenging work, managing people, autonomy, altruism, work-life balance, career growth potential, security, recognition or variety of work? Don’t worry about whether you can control the presence of these factors. Even if we can’t control everything, a failure to work towards your needs is simply leaving success up to chance. Would you need all of them to be happy with your progress? Not entirely. You would, however, be able to understand why you aren’t successful by identifying what’s missing. Then, you could find ways to bring those missing factors back into your life.

Understand your work environment. You’re not going to get everything you need from your job. It’s not any company’s goal to do that. It’s yours. You must manage your expectations accordingly. With that in mind, what factors that motivate you are present in your current work environment? I realize that these factors may be present at various levels, such as you don’t always get exciting work but you do get at least one exciting assignment per year. Check out my table in this link. It’s a view of values from a MBA graduate who is still in their same job after graduation. You can see what’s important to them and what their job provides. Take a little time to figure out what your work environment provides for you.

Find sources for your needs. If we only learned from the experiences in our jobs, how much would we really know? While your job won’t provide everything you need to grow and develop, you can find these opportunities elsewhere. In fact, that’s what drove me into consulting and then publishing. My needs were changing and weren’t being met. So I had a choice: accept it or change it. Once you identify your needs and determine which ones your work environment doesn’t provide, try to find other places outside of work that can help you fill these needs. For the most part, you won’t really care where they are being met, you’ll just be happy they are met. The only time this would become a problem is that if you allow your environment to remain the same for 2 or 3 years. Luckily, change is much faster than that.

Assess your needs often. Decades ago, it seemed that careers were modified by our own personal needs. But, today, the organization is transforming itself at a faster rate than its employees. As companies learn more, they reduce the size of the workforce, outsource, re-engineer processes, merge with other companies, acquire smaller companies and so on. The point is that the company changes often too and this has an impact on your career. Every year at your annual review, you should take time to assess what you need and what the company provides. It’s important to know the alignment of your needs with what your environment provides, as this will often be your sole source of stress. The misalignment will also give you areas to work on improving for the future.

Build your own team. This is probably my favorite idea but one very few actually utilize. A career is still viewed by most as something that can only be done individually. Yet when you look at the history of many highly successful professionals, you find out they had help. Just check out this site to see who got help from others. You should reach out to others to help you in your assessments of your needs and development of plans to meet them. There is such a stigma around career development that most people will never even breach the topic at work, but we will complain to all of our family, friends and neighbors. All you have to do is to talk with a few people you trust and get them to help you. Show them your assessment and get their thoughts. People want to help. It makes them feel valuable and needed. You won’t be disappointed in this tip if you use it.

Little things you should do daily. Success is the result of good habits. I create new habits all the time and test them out for a year to understand how they will impact my surroundings. The good part is that it usually doesn’t take very long to see the results. Here are a few things you can do daily to impact your environment in a positive way.

  • Develop your own catch phrase – Every year I develop one. This year it is “living the dream.” Any time anyone asks me how I’m doing, I respond with my phrase. I try to say it with passion and belief every time. This phrase does two things for me: 1) it reminds me how much progress I’ve made over the years, and 2) it reminds me that I’ve still got a few things to do in my career and that I can accomplish them.
  • Be positive – No matter how bad things get, shed a little sunshine on everyone’s day. Look, a career is very difficult but you can only take it one day at a time. So make every day a good day. Not just for yourself but for those around you. People like being around those who make them happy, despite reality. And if you’re employees really like being around you, maybe managers will keep that in mind should there ever come a need for the unthinkable things companies do to employees (you know… like a layoff!).
  • Stop the comparisons – Too often we judge our success by measuring it against other’s success. We have no idea what others have sacrificed to gain their success or how it has left them on the inside. The comparisons don’t really do much for you other than take time from working on your own plan. If you need to make comparisons, think about where you came from, where you are and where you want to be. That kind of thought has benefits.
  • Bask in the good things – Do you take enough time to soak in the moments when you’re successful? When I experience success, no matter how small, I make sure that I live in the moment as long as possible. I focus on the good emotions so that my body remembers what it feels like when success happens. I want it to develop an addiction to those feelings and a longing to repeat it over and over again.

Yep…there’s nothing magical about this post. It’s all common sense stuff. But how many of us don’t do them on a daily basis? How many of us get trapped in our daily lives? It’s too easy to do. Life and your career can be much better. All you have to do is plan a little and develop some good daily habits. If you’re not doing this, then you already have good habits or the pain isn’t bad enough yet. By why wait? Give yourself every possible advantage to be successful and happy. And who doesn’t want that?