The Art of Managing Your Career

Great men–Napoleon, Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart–were able to work on themselves. To a large extent, this explains their extraordinary achievements. But they are the rarest of exceptions; the talents and accomplishments of these geniuses are so extraordinary that their life experiences are hardly useful to the average person. Most of us who are not so generously endowed by nature need to learn how to manage ourselves, to develop our abilities, and to find things in which to prove ourselves.

What are my strengths?

Almost all of us think that we know what we are strong in and what we are not. And more often than not, we’re wrong. And understanding your strengths is important because you can’t excel at something you don’t have the ability to do. The so-called method of analysis of results allows you to discover your talents. Taking an important decision, making an important step, write down what you hope to achieve. A year later, compare how reality corresponds to your predictions. This method is not new. It was invented back in the XIV century by a German theologian, who did not distinguish himself in any other way. A century and a half later, it was independently noticed by Jean Calvin and Ignatius Loyola, who taught their followers to use it. In fact, it is the rigid focus on professional success that this method sets that explains why Calvinism and the Jesuit order already had enormous influence in Europe 30 years after its founding. By constantly analyzing the results, one can identify one’s abilities in a short period of time, two or three years. The method will show you what prevents you from realizing your full potential: you are probably simply not doing what you want to do. You will find out in which areas you lack knowledge, skills and experience. And finally, you will see in which professions you will never succeed because you do not have the data to do so. The method of analyzing results allows you to formulate something like a guide to action.

First, always “bet” on your strengths and find the job in which you will achieve the greatest success because of them. Second, develop your professionalism and your talents-analysis of the results will quickly show which ones, and at the same time will reveal the gaps in your knowledge; as a rule, they are easy to eliminate. Mathematician must be born, but anyone can master trigonometry. Third, see if you have a self-confidence that breeds ignorance, and if you find it in yourself, try to overcome it. Too many of us-especially seasoned professionals-take a dim view of knowledge from “foreign” fields, believing that talent can replace knowledge. First-rate engineers, for example, are defiantly unwilling to study psychology: in their view, people are too irrational creatures and therefore of no interest to a good engineer. But ignorance always leads to failure. Don’t pass up an opportunity to learn or master new things, things that will help you realize your potential. It is equally important to get rid of wrong attitudes. Here again, the analysis of results will help you. Probably, the brilliant theorist, who is always full of ideas and plans, will find that his wonderful plans end up in nothing. And the thing is that he is not interested in how they will be implemented, and he does not think about it. Like many gifted people, he believes that ideas can make mountains. But in fact it takes bulldozers to do it: ideas only tell them where to work. Also, results analysis will “warn you” if you are not behaving properly with those around you. Rules of conduct in an organization act like the grease in a mechanism. When moving bodies come into contact, there is friction – this is a law of nature, and it applies to people as well. Politeness – the habit of saying “please” and “thank you”, remembering the names of employees, taking interest in their affairs – allows people to work together regardless of whether they like each other or not. Talented professionals, especially young ones, often don’t understand this. If every time you have to cooperate with other people, things go awry, it’s probably because of your manners, namely lack of politeness. When you compare expectations with results, you’ll know what you shouldn’t be doing. Anyone can name professions for which they have no aptitude.

So, these professions are not for him, and there is no need to strive there, to spend energy on mastering new knowledge and skills (especially if we are talking about employees of intellectual work). After all, in order to reach the level of at least mediocrity in them, you will have to put too much effort, much more than in order to raise a good worker from an outstanding one.

How do I work?

Surprisingly, we usually don’t know how we get results. So often, by imitating others, we adopt other people’s methods and strategies and thereby condemn ourselves to failure. It is especially important for mental workers to understand the specifics of their creative process. The inimitable manner of work depends on the character of the person, so it should be taken as a given. This manner can be corrected, but it is unlikely that anyone will be able to change it completely.

What am I – a “reader” or a “listener”?

First of all, find out which type of person you are – a “reader” or a “listener. Many people are not even aware of the existence of these two types, and ignorance on this subject can be detrimental. When Dwight Eisenhower was commander-in-chief of Allied forces in Europe, journalists worshipped him. He was famous for his ability to conduct press conferences, demonstrating an in-depth knowledge of any issue at stake, explaining in detail what was happening or summarizing policy in two or three elegant phrases. Ten years later, journalists – the same journalists who once admired him so much – spoke loathingly of President Eisenhower. They said that the president never answered a question directly, but instead launched into long arguments on extraneous subjects. The President’s rambling remarks, which sounded like a mockery of the English language, also gave them cause for scorn. Eisenhower seemed unaware that he was a “reader” rather than a “listener. When he was commander-in-chief in Europe, his aides demanded that journalists submit questions at least half an hour before a press conference. Eisenhower had time to prepare, so he answered questions brilliantly. As president, he succeeded two “listeners,” Roosevelt and Truman, who enjoyed improvising at press conferences. Eisenhower probably felt that he should follow their example. As a result, he never really understood what journalists were asking him.

How do I learn?

It is also very important for us to know how we learn, how we master new things. Many first-rate writers were underachievers and most often remember their school years as a torture. The fact is that writers usually cannot learn by reading and listening–they have to write for that. Since they can’t learn at school that way, they get bad grades. Beethoven, for example, belonged to the same type. He left many notebooks, although he said he never looked into them when composing his works. When asked why he needed them at all, Beethoven supposedly replied: “If I don’t write down any idea at once, I’m sure I’ll forget it. But if I put it in my notebook, I’ll remember it forever. Some people learn by doing things or by listening to themselves. I know a top executive who helped a small, family-owned company become a market leader. He was the kind of person who needed to talk.

Once a week, he would gather the executives of the company in his office and speak to them. He almost never asked his employees for their opinions or advice, but simply needed an audience to talk to. He thought better that way and understood better what had to be done. Most people answer the question, “How do you learn?” with confidence. But if you ask, “Do you apply your knowledge?” few will answer in the affirmative, even though it is this skill that determines success. More accurately, failure to use one’s knowledge condemns one to failure. Once you understand whether you are a “reader” or a “listener” and how you comprehend new things, don’t stop. Figure out how you work best – with other people or alone and in what capacity. There are some people who are simply designed to be subordinates. General Patton, the outstanding World War II commander, belonged to this category. He was a brilliant combat commander. But when he was proposed for a post that implied great authority, General George Marshall, the chief of the American General Staff (he was famous for his ability to select people for various posts), said: “Patton is the best subordinate our army has ever brought up, but he cannot be trusted with independent command. Another thing to consider is whether you can make your own decisions or whether you are more suited to the role of advisor. Often those who are great at it are afraid to take responsibility for decisions. Others, on the contrary, need advisors to make them think, which is the only way they can make decisions. It is for this reason, by the way, that former deputies are often lost when they find themselves in the shoes of their managers. The highest position requires the ability to make decisions. General directors who have such skills appoint those whom they trust as their deputies and advisers, and as such, these people work wonderfully. But at the head of the organization they fail. They know what needs to be done, but they lack the courage to make the final decision.

In conclusion, let me repeat myself. Don’t try to change yourself – it’s not likely to work. But work hard, and hone your professional skills. And don’t take on someone else’s business, in which you will always be a “C”.

What are my values?

Finally, in order to manage your life and career, you need to have a good idea of your own hierarchy of values. It’s not about ethics, because ethical standards are the same for everyone. To understand what is ethically right and what is wrong is very simple: it is done by a test that I call the “mirror test. At the very beginning of the twentieth century, the German ambassador was particularly respected among the great powers in London. This diplomat was predicted a brilliant career – the post of foreign minister and even chancellor. But in 1906 he unexpectedly resigned. He did so in order to avoid playing the role of hostess at a dinner party given by the diplomatic corps in honor of King Edward VII. The king, a notorious red tape man, made it clear what he expected from the dinner. Explaining his resignation, the ambassador allegedly said: “I do not wish to see a pimp in the mirror every morning.” This is the “mirror test.” Ethical standards imply that we ask ourselves who we would like to see in the mirror.

What is acceptable in one company or situation is not acceptable in another. But ethical norms are only part of the overall value system. Working in an organization whose value system is incompatible with yours condemns you to constant discord with yourself, and so you will never achieve good results. Let’s take this example. One highly successful human resources manager from a company that had been acquired by a larger corporation was given a job after the takeover that he was good at: he was supposed to be recruiting for senior management positions. This manager was convinced that people should be brought in from outside only when all opportunities within the company itself had been exhausted. But the new bosses thought otherwise: in their opinion, only outsiders could “inject fresh blood. Both approaches have their merits, but they are based on mutually exclusive values: we are talking about different views on the relationship between the organization and employees, on the responsibility of the organization for its employees. A few years later, the manager, unable to withstand the internal discord, resigned. His value system was incompatible with the value system of the company. Similarly, a pharmaceutical company can improve its products step by step or bet on rare, risky breakthroughs. The choice of strategy is not determined by economic considerations, but by different value systems: one strategy aims to help doctors treat patients better, another aims at scientific discovery. Organizations, like people, have their own value systems, and in order to work successfully, you have to find an organization whose values are compatible with yours – not necessarily identical, but very close. Otherwise you will not only condemn yourself to constant inner conflict, but you will not be able to work fruitfully. As a rule, our talents and the manner of work do not contradict each other, but between the system of values and talents conflict is quite possible. A person can be an expert – and even excellent – in a profession that does not match his values. In this case, it is not worth devoting your life (or at least part of it) to it. Here is an example from my own life. Many years ago I had to choose between my career and my values.

In the mid-1930s I, then a very young man, had a successful career with an investment bank in London; it was clear that I had an aptitude for the business. But the role of asset manager did not seem very attractive to me. I knew I was more interested in people than money, and I didn’t want to spend my life working for a fortune. I had no money, no way to get another job. Still, even though it was the time of the Great Depression, I quit – and I did the right thing.

What to be?

Some kids are lucky enough to know exactly what they’re going to be when they grow up. Mathematicians or musicians, for example, usually become at age five. Doctors most often decide to become doctors in high school, and sometimes even earlier. But most people, especially the most gifted, understand what to do only by the age of thirty. By that time, though, they know what their strengths are, how they work, and what their values are, so they can decide what they want to be. Or rather, understand what they shouldn’t be. A successful career cannot be planned in advance. A career develops when a person is willing to take advantage of the opportunities before them. When an ordinary person – diligent and competent, but not particularly remarkable – knows what he or she should be, he or she can turn into a top-notch professional.

What good can I do?

For centuries, people had no need to think about what good they could do. They had no choice: what and how to do was predetermined from birth. And until recently, this situation seemed natural. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, intellectual workers took for granted that their careers were determined by human resources. But then, in the late 1960s, it suddenly appeared that no one wanted to work at someone else’s behest anymore. Young people began to care about what they themselves wanted. And they were taught that the main thing was to “find themselves.” But even this attitude was erroneous. Of those who tried to “find themselves,” only a handful managed to do something useful, to fulfill themselves, or to achieve success.

But there is no going back, and we will not go back to the days when people only did what they were told. Now, especially for intellectual workers, they will have to ask themselves: “What am I supposed to do?” Let’s look at how the director of a large hospital who had just been appointed to that position acted. The hospital was once considered very good, but over the past 30 years it has fallen into disrepair. The director sets himself the task of getting at least one unit up and running in two years and making it a model unit. He chooses the emergency department, the hospital’s calling card of sorts. A year later the department becomes the best in the United States, and two years later the whole hospital is transformed. The director did not look far into the future, and there was no point. A clear and specific plan in general should not run more than a year and a half ahead. Therefore, it is necessary to well understand what can be done during this time, and take into account several circumstances. First, the task should be difficult, but realistic: striving for the unattainable is a sign of stupidity, not courage. Second, the task must be meaningful, in which case our efforts will make a real difference. Third, the results must be obvious. Hence the program of our actions: what to do, where to start, what deadlines to set for ourselves.

Relationships with Colleagues

Very few people can work in complete solitude: that is the destiny of great artists, brilliant scientists, and outstanding athletes. Most – both corporate employees and individual entrepreneurs – need to interact with other people, which means being able to build relationships with them. To begin with, we have to recognize that people around us in general and our colleagues in particular are human beings just like us. That is, they have their own strengths, their own value systems, their own way of working, which you need to know. Despite the obviousness of saying this, we too often overlook it. A common story: at his first job, an employee was used to writing reports because his boss was a “reader.” In his new job, too, he makes reports that nobody needs for the “listener” supervisor. The boss, of course, is convinced that this subordinate is stupid, lazy, incompetent, and unable to cope with his duties. This situation can be avoided.

You just need to remember that the bosses are the same people as everyone else, and therefore have the right to work the way they feel most comfortable. And subordinates need to observe them in order to understand exactly how they work and adapt to their peculiarities: that is the secret of “managing” the boss. The same applies to colleagues. The main secret of effective work in a team is the ability to understand those around you, to know their strengths and values. After all, at work, personal relationships are no less important than professional ones. In addition, it is necessary to communicate with colleagues, to discuss your work with them. When any consultant (myself included) first appears in an organization, employees start to complain about conflicts. The reason for them is usually the same: people do not know what colleagues do, how they work, what their contribution is to the common cause and what results they strive for. They do not know simply because they never ask about it themselves. The inability to ask shows not so much stupidity as historical memory: until recently, it was not necessary. In a medieval city, all the inhabitants of the same neighborhood were engaged in the same craft. In the countryside, once the ground thawed, the peasants planted the same plants. And those who made a living doing something “unusual” worked on their own, so there was no one to reveal their secrets. Today almost everyone works side by side with other people in different functions.

The following situation is typical: the vice president of marketing knows everything about sales, but does not understand what he has never been directly involved in: pricing, advertising, packaging, etc. The first to blame for this are the specialists who work in these areas: they have not explained to the vice president of marketing what they do. And vice versa, the vice president of marketing has to clearly explain to his colleagues the essence of his approach to marketing, his goals and methods. Even those who understand the importance of human relations in a team do not always know how to communicate properly with those around them, to talk to them. They are afraid to appear arrogant, or overly curious, or stupid. But this is wrong. Organizations these days are not based on power, but on mutual trust. Although, if people trust each other, it does not mean that they sympathize with each other: it only proves that they understand each other. Therefore, it is necessary to be able to build relationships with those with whom we work, and to take responsibility for those relationships. We just have to do it.

The Second Half of Life

Back in the day, when the word “work” meant only one thing to most people – “physical labor,” they didn’t think about what to do in the second half of life: they still did what they always did. The lucky ones who survived 40 years of hard work in a factory or on the railroad enjoyed peace for the rest of their lives. Today, however, work is mostly related to mental labor, and after 40 years “on duty,” people are still full of energy, they are just very bored. Lately people often speak about “middle age crisis” among top managers. By the age of 45, many of them reach the peak of their careers.

Doing basically the same thing for two decades, they become professionals of the highest class. But they do not learn anything new, they are not eager to contribute to the common cause, their work does not excite them and does not bring satisfaction. And yet for another 20-25 years they will be able to work. Therefore, the art of managing their lives more and more often involves the ability to choose a second career. You can find a new business in different ways. First, to change jobs. Often people simply move to another organization: for example, an accountant from a large corporation takes the same position in a medium-sized hospital. But many act more decisively: say, a high-ranking official, after reaching the age of 45, goes to the priesthood, and a top manager gets a law degree and becomes a lawyer in a small town. In the future, people who are quite successful in their first career will increasingly start a second one. They have a lot of experience, and they know how to work. The children have grown up and moved away, the house is empty, and it is important for them to feel needed, and extra money can’t hurt. But above all they need to occupy themselves, to find an interesting occupation. It is possible to take care of a parallel career beforehand. Many people who have had significant professional success do not quit their day job (sometimes they remain part time or as consultants) but find a new one, usually in a charity or humanitarian organization, and devote about ten hours a week to it. They manage the affairs of their church or shelters for women victims of domestic violence, work in children’s libraries, serve on the boards of trustees of local schools, etc. Finally, people who have had brilliant careers sometimes become community leaders. They love their work, but there is nothing intriguing about it for them anymore. So without giving it up, they get involved in social projects. My friend Bob Buford, for example, founded a popular television company, which he still runs. He also built a thriving charity that works with Protestant churches, and he conceived of another one that would help people like him do charitable work and run their companies at the same time. Perhaps those who are seriously preparing for the second half of life will always be a minority, and the majority will prefer to stay in their main job and look forward to retirement. But it is the minority, those men and women who want to do something useful for themselves and for society as long as they have strength. If you want to join this minority, start early to prepare for the second half of life. Thirty years ago it became clear that life expectancy was rising rapidly, and at the time many assumed that more and more retirees would be volunteering for humanitarian organizations. But we were wrong. If a person didn’t get into that rut by age 40, he or she is unlikely to do so at 60. All of the charity founders and social project managers I know started their second careers long before they reached the top of their first.

Take the example of the legal counsel for a large corporation, the director of a school aid foundation. He began providing pro bono legal assistance to them when he was about 35. By 40, he was elected to the school board of trustees. At 50, he started a foundation whose funds went to create model schools, and he still works almost full-time as lead counsel for that very company. There’s another good reason to find a second job, and as early as possible. No one is immune to serious setbacks in their work or personal life. Imagine an engineer who at 45 years old was not promoted, or a professor who at 42 years unlikely to be offered a position at a prestigious university. There are tragedies in family life, such as the breakup of a marriage. It is easier for a person who has an alternative sphere of interest to survive difficult times. In a society where success is so highly valued, you simply have to do something else besides your main job. Generally speaking, the concept of success itself is fairly new. In the past, most people only sought to maintain their position. Because to change it meant one thing – to go down to the bottom. Now everyone strives for success. But failure is inevitable along the way. That is why it is important for each of us to have “another business” in which we can succeed, be useful and be recognized. Many people think that managing their lives and careers is easy (and the recipes suggested here will seem naively obvious to them). But in fact, the task requires new solutions from all of us, and especially from people in the field of intellectual work.

In fact, every person today must think like a top manager. In addition, the shift from physical labor, in which workers do as they are told, to mental labor, in which people manage their own careers, leads to profound changes in the structure of society. All current societies, even those in which the individual is dominant, are based on two assumptions: organizations are more durable than their employees and most people rarely change jobs.

But today the situation is just the opposite. Those who work in “smart” industries sometimes live longer than their organizations, and besides, they don’t spend their lives doing only one thing. The need to manage careers thus leads to a real revolution.