Be Thankful for the Worst Moments of Your Career

Thanksgiving is a fascinating holiday because it unites the American population — all too easily fragmented into racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic tribes —  with a day of celebration characterized by overeating, football, parades, sitting in traffic, and shopping. God Bless America.

Memorable, perhaps not for the intended reasons
Memorable, perhaps not for the intended reasons

Thanksgiving also prompts us to reflect on the aspects of our lives for which we are grateful. If this habit of reflection and gratitude is not already part of your regular routine, the holiday is a convenient trigger to start. Since so many other pundits will focus on being thankful for the happy, fluffy stuff (like kittens, having a Twitter account that isn’t censored by the government, etc.) I decided to take a different angle and prompt you to reflect on the worst moments of your career; the moments that we so easily sweep under the rugs of our memories.

Why be thankful for the worst moments? Two main reasons:

  1. Without the worst moments of failure, our best moments of success wouldn’t shine. Few of us will experience the extreme “rags to riches” arc of Dhirubhai Ambani (founder of Reliance Industries, one of India’s largest firms) or the drought-erasing victory of the 2004 Red Sox, but every moment of success is more enjoyable in contrast to relative failure.
  2. Our mistakes offer meaningful lessons and accelerate our growth. One of Ray Dalio’s principles is “pain + reflection = progress.” It is easy to read about concepts in books and articles, but the most powerful case studies are the ones we live through.

We’ve all had “forgettable” moments in our careers: the presentation that ends with confused silence, the spreadsheet error that gets through to the Board recommendation, the budget models that go through countless revisions over many bleary eyed weekends (to name a few of mine). Here’s an approach to making the most of those tough experiences:

  • First take a few moments to feel, truly and vividly, the painful feelings of failure and disappointment. Afterwards, it’s much easier to move past the negative experience without lingering regret or embarrassment. Don’t despair: life goes on. You are not an inherently bad person because of a poor choice or error.
  • Then reflect on what faulty reasoning or gap in skills led to the mistakes. We can take on new challenges with confidence provided by new skills and perspective. Be thankful that this failure occurred as early in your career as it did – you will now benefit from the learning for the rest of your days.

Just like roses can’t exist without manure, and a delicious turkey dinner can’t exist without a sink full of stinking dishes, professional blunders are an inevitable part of any career. Be thankful for the learning opportunities they provide, and soak up the satisfaction of success even more fully when it arrives.

Image credit: Business Insider

Is your job as hard as you want it to be?

First: a Veterans/Remembrance Day moment of appreciation to all military veterans out there. The rest of us will never actually understand the level of service and sacrifice that you made. Thank you, truly.

Now, some of that leadertainment you came here for. Many people find themselves restless at work, struggling to find balance. If you are, like me, a modern day corporate Goldilocks seeking professional balance that is “just right,” perhaps this framework will be helpful to you.


  This is not what I meant by “hard.” Entertaining, though, on a few levels.

What I’m proposing is that a job can be hard on you physically, mentally, both, or neither. Ok, I won’t wait up late for the Nobel phone call, but perhaps you haven’t taken stock of your job this way before, or thought of ways to change the balance.

Why is your job hard?
Why is your job hard?

Once you’ve placed your current job on the matrix, ask whether the role fits what you want from your career at this stage. Maybe your commitments at home are growing and you’d happily take on some career Atrophy for more bath time with the kids and date nights with your spouse, or the flexibility to start volunteering. At the other end of the scale, perhaps you are a recent empty nester and are ready for the Exhaustion of a tough growth challenge with a startup organization. Many of us are very happy with Heavy Lifting or Deep Thinking roles, once have found the right match for our strengths.

In an upcoming post, we’ll dive in to the concept of purpose at work. For now, think about why your job is hard, and whether you are satisfied with the answer. If not, collect your thoughts and reach out to your manager, your peers, and your team, and make a plan to change it for the better.

Does your job fulfill the career Hierarchy of Needs?

Among the many first world problems readers of this blog will face is the challenge of finding a rewarding career. With apologies to Maslow, I’ve created a hierarchy of needs for careers. You may find this helpful when comparing options to change jobs within a company or between organizations. Remember that just like in other areas of consumer behavior, career decisions are about making trade-offs. Is a shorter commute “worth” doing more PowerPoint slides? Would you give up your dynamic and cohesive team for the chance to make a more tangible positive difference to society? Keep in mind that the items at the top of the pyramid tend to take a longer time to become evident.

My last caveat before explaining the career hierarchy of needs is what you won’t see on the list. Compensation and title/status are not part of this hierarchy for two reasons: first, adequate compensation and title are pre-requisites for any job that an established professional would consider. Second, as authors like Daniel Pink and Andy LaCivita have illustrated, throwing more money at a person in a marginally tolerable role is only a temporary fix.

Hierarchy of Needs for Careers

Hierarchy of Needs mapped to career development
Hierarchy of Needs mapped to career development
  1. (top) Purpose – what difference are we making in the world?
  2. Learning – what skills, knowledge, and experience will you gain?
  3. People – how enjoyable is the company of the team?
  4. Tasks – how fulfilling is the work itself?
  5. (bottom) Work environment – how is the commute, the workplace, the lighting, the snacks?

Try using this set of attributes to plan your next career move, or to start a discussion among your team about how to improve the current environment. If you have feedback about what I’ve omitted, or what doesn’t belong, leave a comment.

Make Your Career Engine a Hybrid

A handful of engine technologies are vying to overtake the traditional gasoline internal combustion model (recently the Economist expounded the benefits of modern diesel designs). Regardless of your opinions on the future of the automobile, think about what moves you ahead at work: from where do you get power and efficiency?


Hybrid automobile engines appeal to designers and consumers because they have complementary power sources. High torque, low power electric motors are best for low speed maneuvering (like when it gets real in the Whole Foods parking lot) and straight line cruising; gasoline power kicks in for acceleration.

Taking this analogy to our careers, we need a strong set of skills to work efficiently and must tap into passion for what we do for the toughest moments. At any given time, on any day or project, either your skills or passion are providing the main motivation behind your work. When you run out of one, you had better have a reserve of the other to tap into – before you find yourself standing still.

Try to become more aware of the moments when you are at one end or another of the spectrum between skill and passion. Proofreading slides for the monthly management report? All skill. That sales meeting where the prospective customer tucks your business card into his planner right behind one from your biggest competitor? Bring on the passion.  Find ways to hone your skills and tap into your passion more deeply, and you will have the power and efficiency you need to keep moving ahead at high speed in your career.

Thanks to Marc St Pierre for this inspiration

Setting goals only works if it’s personal. Four steps to do it effectively

Adapting Tolstoy’s famous opening line about families to business: “every unsuccessful business is unsuccessful in different ways.” One way that I’ve encountered in numerous settings is the disconnect between corporate goals and the work that people do every day. As we’ve come to understand employee motivation more completely over the years through the work of authors like Daniel Pink, being able to tie daily tasks to larger objectives or a shared sense of purpose improves retention and performance.
Dilbert.com
But setting corporate goals is a difficult process because, by necessity, they are big. How can we phrase them in a way that is actionable — so that regular Joe and Jane can come to work each morning, do their best, and make a measurable difference? It’s a tough challenge, but surely the most profitable company in the world has this figured out…let’s see what we can learn from ExxonMobil’s goals!

Here are some excerpts taken from the 2011 Corporate Citizenship Report, which highlights performance and goals in six areas. Below are the first statements under “what we plan to do” for each of those areas:

  • Environmental Performance: “Continue to implement recommendations on improving oil spill response capabilities”
  • Managing Climate Change Risks: “Continue to improve energy efficiency by at least 10 percent between 2002 and 2012 across our worldwide refining and chemical operations”
  • Safety, Health, and the Workplace: “Continue to learn from personnel and process safety performance metrics to help achieve our goal that Nobody Gets Hurt”
  • Corporate Governance: “Continue to recruit highly qualified non-employee directors”
  • Economic Development: “Partner with the United Nations Foundation to develop a report examining the most effective investments to advance women’s economic empowerment”
  • Human Rights and Managing Community Impact: “Continue to review existing practices toward making appropriate adjustments relative to expectations under the U.N. Framework and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”

Those are some high level, long term goals, and as the largest company in the world, they should be. But coming to work every day, how many of the 82,000 employees can make a direct contribution to these? The answer is none — not when the individual’s goals are worded this way. The critical step that leaders at all levels, in companies large or small, must take is to translate high-level business goals into aligned, measurable goals within an individual’s span of control.

How to do this? Just like you’d knock down a wasps nest: very carefully and with plenty of preparation. I’ll oversimplify in to these four steps; if you’re interested in a more complete set of instructions, please reach out to some of the folks in my network listed below who do this for a living.

  1. Set your overall organizational goals in specific measurable terms. For example, grow free cash flow at 20% CAGR for the next 3 years.
  2. Decompose the high-level goals into the measurable sub-goals based on how the system works. In the example above, the major levers on free cash flow are profit, net capital expenditure, and net change in working capital. At the next level of detail, the major drivers of profit are revenue and operating expenses; the major drivers of CAPEX are the number of capital projects and the size/schedule of each. Continue to expand out these measurable sub-goals until you reach tangible metrics that can be influenced by leadership teams and individual contributors (things like revenue from specific customers, OEE, and expenses by category).
  3. Measure the gaps and set targets for the detailed goals so that they add up to meet the overall goals. It’s math. This is the easy part compared to the next step.
  4. Have a series of conversations with your leadership teams and individual contributors to agree the targets, improvement projects, and timelines so that people understand the numbers, how they are mutually dependent, and take ownership of the outcome. These conversations can be truly defining moments for organizations.

But don’t take my word for it – seek out the advice of some talented folks who have made goal setting and translation a focus of their careers.

You need three things to succeed. As a coach, I can only give you two

Sometimes a softer, coaching approach gets the group closest to the pin

Recently a member of my team was struggling to meet client expectations. His direct manager (who reports to me) kept me aware of the situation, and was putting in more of her own time than any of us wanted in order to help him keep his head above water. After the pattern continued for about two weeks, it was time to intervene. The three of us sat down and discussed the framework below:

  1. A clear vision of success – the first thing I can do as a coach is help you understand what success looks like. I can describe this in my terms, I can show you prior examples of success, and ultimately I want to hear you articulate how this vision applies to the current situation in your own words so I’m sure we’re on the same page.
  2. Skills to complete the work – in the spirit of “if this were easy, it’d be done already,” you are likely going to have to reach a new level of capability to succeed. Let’s identify which core skills you need to build (technical, interpersonal, communication, etc.) to achieve the vision above, and how you can quickly build proficiency and confidence.
  3. Motivation –  this last part must come from you. Ideally our discussions will tap into some of your longer term aspirations, and you will be motivated for a while. Maybe you will have to find motivation on a shorter time scale: avoiding a negative performance review next month, or just not seeing my smiling face first thing every morning to ask you what the plan is! Of course I will help you with a framework to identify your own personal motivators, but at the end of the day, motivation is entirely internal.

This collaborative, coaching style of leadership might come naturally to some of us, and might need cultivation in others. You can read an example from Michele Fabrizi, a leader who found success through a strong coaching style, at one of my favorite new sites, thebuildnetwork.com.

For a more detail about leadership styles and how to select the most effective one for different business scenarios, check out this classic from HBR by Daniel Goleman. (image above from HBR)

What do you think of this framework? Try it out, and let me know the result!

What motivates you? Take the Memory Stick Test

The situation: A scientific researcher has a number of well-reviewed papers in print, but is still looking for “the big break.” One day, cleaning out some drawers in a newly inherited lab space on campus, the scientist finds an unlabeled memory stick. Curious, plugging it in reveals a pristine data set, which immediately  confirms proof of a cure for cancer, but no trace of the owner. The scientist goes on to publish the data under his/her own name and win the Nobel Prize, changing life as we know it.

What motivates you: the work itself or the reward?

The test: who would you prefer to be in this situation, the person who does all the hard work and “solves the problem” but gets no recognition, or the person who gets all the fame and fortune without much regard for the path to the top? You probably have a snap answer…now read the rest of this post and reconsider your answer again at the end. This simple test can increase your self-awareness, and also advance your leadership and coaching when you start conversations by posing the question to your team members.

There are many dimensions of motivation, and leaders can use annual goal setting conversations as a way to understand the unique aspirations and performance triggers of their team members. Public recognition is a reward that inspires some people and embarrasses others. Two great books on the subject of motivation in careers, Drive by Daniel Pink and Peak by Chip Conley, explore these dimensions fully and provide practical advice.

The importance of the Memory Stick Test, however, is to learn who in your team carries a potential integrity risk. Fraudulent misrepresentation and cutting corners to complete a task on time are two points on a scale of short-term thinking that poses a risk to personal and professional success. Treat this perspective as a chance to explore these motivations and coach.

How did you answer the Memory Stick Test? What did you learn from the conversation with your team? Have any other quick conversation starters to explore motivation? Leave a comment, thanks!