The career dangers of ‘sticking things out’

There are a number of ‘good’ habits that are typical of talented and hard-working executives. These ‘good’ habits are actually bad for your career: what is needed to achieve full career potential is a more Machiavellian approach.

One of these ‘good’ habits that are actually bad for your career is ‘sticking things out’ – feeling obliged to see a project through to its conclusion, regardless of the impact on your career. The example below is based on conversations with Hayley [name changed] and the apparently promising project that actually cost her four years, in career terms.

True story: a blind alley

Hayley is an engineering manager with an automotive company. She is beginning to make her mark, along with many other female engineers, in a male-dominated industry, but she recalls one particular period in her career that delayed her career progression.

“When I was just beginning to make a name for myself as an engineer, I was put in charge of a development project for a new piece of technology. It was very exciting – well, it was to me. In the auto business, there aren’t many real breakthroughs.
I was offered the chance to lead the project, and I thought it had the potential to be very exciting; I really thought it could transform my career. Potentially, it could have done. But the project began to get bogged down.

“There were unforeseen problems; the costs began to escalate; we kept going back for more money, but getting money got harder. People got nervous and, to be fair, it wasn’t easy for us to prove that the new technology would save enough money or generate enough income to justify the costs.

“The long and the short of it was that I stayed with that project too long, even when it was pretty clear that it wasn’t going anywhere – or at least not going anywhere fast enough. The project finally got canned and I didn’t really get any kudos from it.

“It looks quite good on my CV, if you understand the business, because it was very advanced in terms of the technology; it also taught me a great deal about running a project, managing people and presenting to senior management. But from the perspective of my company, I’d been given a project and it hadn’t delivered. Worse than that, although I was leading the project, it wasn’t technically a promotion, so the project had taken me out of the loop in terms of the usual career opportunities and I was side-lined as a result.

“If I’d been a bit more career-savvy and less determined to make the project work, I would have moved company after the first year. My CV was looking good; leading the project was giving me real management experience and I should have leveraged that for a new and better job with a different company.

“I don’t tend to work that way; I’m very dedicated. I feel like I’m obliged to see things through once I’ve taken them on. What actually happened was that when the project finally got closed down I was still a product engineer; at that point, the company didn’t feel obliged to run around looking for a promotion for me. Not for a while anyway.

“In the end, I moved to a different manufacturer anyway, because I felt I was playing catch-up at my old employer. In career terms, I would say the project cost me four years. I can persuade myself that it was valuable in terms of experience, but none of us is getting any younger.

“I know where I want to be in five years’ time, and I won’t let anything distract me again. I need to be certain that what I’m working on is going to be seen as successful. I want to move up into senior management, and to do that I have to stay in the mainstream and get myself known around the business. Even great projects can be a bit of a blind alley.”

A blind alley: analysis

In career terms, the role that currently occupies your time has only one function: to allow you to shine, so that your career can move on the next stage. There is a perfect moment at which you can gain maximum leverage from your current successes in order to gain a more senior role – and that moment is not necessarily at the natural ‘end’ of a project or when some obvious milestone has been reached.

People are promoted for their potential as much as for their current contributions. Being seen to put something new and hopeful in place, which can now be handed over for someone else to take on, allows you to use your talents in a more senior role, make an impact there, and move on up again.

This sense of perpetual motion is vital in building a successful career; getting bogged down for many years working in the same role costs vital time and begins to look like failure – because you have stopped moving up. Timing is everything.
To use a sporting analogy: it’s essential to turn periods of dominance into points on the board. If you’re the star of the moment, use that to move your career on to the next stage. ‘Sticking things out’ from a sense of obligation is very bad for your career.

A version of his article first appeared in Training Journal.

The True Story was adapted from ‘The 6 Habits of Highly unSuccessful Executives’ in  Machiavellian Intelligence: How to survive and thrive in the modern corporation


Hero Leadership Is A Big Ask: We Need Leadership In Depth

If organisations didn’t have to cope with change, we wouldn’t need leadership – we could simply manage the existing, well-established processes, doing the same thing over and over again in a nice, comfortable way. But things do change, and organisations must change constantly to reflect this challenging fact of life. As the pace of change accelerates, we need leadership of a very high calibre to keep organisations relevant and successful.

When we want to give our leaders new perspectives to equip them for the task, we send them on ‘leadership development programmes’ at business schools. These programmes usually ‘work’: leaders on such programmes are exposed to the latest business thinking and get the opportunity – and the breathing space – to bounce ideas off top business brains and the leaders’ peers and fellow delegates; it would be a poor programme that did not send leaders away buzzing with new ideas. But then these newly-inspired leaders go back to organisations that have not themselves, by definition, moved on, and they are expected to bring about change – sometimes radical change – either single-handedly or with the help of a few, hopefully equally inspired, members of their top team.

The organisation is effectively saying to its leadership team, ‘We know we’ve got a problem, so we’re going to send you on a development programme, and when you come back, we want you to change everything and solve the problem.’

Organisations are asking their leaders to be heroes.

A few modern business leaders are, indeed, heroic, but it’s a big ask; truly great leaders are few and far between. What we need, as well as hero leaders, is excellent leadership, in depth.

Sending leaders back to the trenches

‘Developing’ leaders in this way is a lot like taking the most promising officers out of the trenches of the First Word War, training them in the techniques of modern warfare so that they can become a new type of military leader, and then sending them back to the trenches in the hope that they will transform the military situation. Their heads are bursting with new ideas, but the army is still stuck in the trenches and everyone around them is stuck in the mindset of trench warfare. Oh – and the chiefs of staff don’t agree with this ‘radical’ new way of thinking and still believe that they can win the war in the trenches.

These newly-developed leaders, filled with marvellous new ideas, are unlikely to be able to transform the situation, despite their individual brilliance.

The need for organisational transformation

What is needed in this analogy, clearly, is a transformation of the strategic military situation. The new leaders who have been plucked out of the trenches should be sent, not back to the trenches, but to begin to work with the chiefs of staff, and to go on to work with the army as a whole on a new strategic plan that would get the army out of the trenches and onto a new offensive.

Modern organisations are large and complex and are resistant to change; the existing management, much of the wider leadership and the board of directors (the ‘chiefs of staff’ in our analogy) may still firmly believe that the old ways are best and that the new ways are risky. There can be a lot of resistance to getting organisations ‘out of the trenches’.

Developing the leadership skills of a chosen few is not, in itself, the best route to transforming organisations. We need many new-thinking leaders in place, right throughout the organisation.

Training new leaders early in their career

Organisations tend to offer leadership development quite late in people’s careers, at a time when ideas, attitudes and behaviours are well-established and harder to change – when the individuals already have a substantial degree of alignment with their organisation’s mindset and after their current thinking has been positively reinforced by the very fact of their career success to date. By this stage, they may find it difficult to envisage how or even why they or the organisation should change.

Modern organisations need leadership in depth. Offering leadership development to a wide range of potential leaders far earlier in their career would create a new generation of potential leaders who are thinking about the challenges that they face, and have already begin to think about the ways in which they should adapt to cope with these.

Instead of relying on leaders to achieve heroic feats, organisations would be wiser to develop strong leadership in depth, offering leadership training earlier in people’s careers and encouraging them to step up and lead whenever appropriate.

Rethinking ‘Human Resources’

You may remember (though you are probably too young) that Human Resource departments used to be called ‘Personnel’ departments, and their job was pretty much restricted to finding, training and retaining (and sometimes letting go) personnel – or ‘people’ as we tend to call them these days.  When the term Human Resources was first used in the corporate context, sometime around the 1950s in the United States, it was part of a deliberate rebranding exercise, intended to flag up the strategic importance of the role and the centrality of the ‘human resource’. People were no longer seen as ‘personnel’ – the individuals who happened to carry out a particular duty for the corporation at a particular moment – they were a core and precious resource, to be nurtured and cared for.

But it is a shame that the well-meaning re-branders chose that particular term. The problem with the word ‘resource’ is – well, it’s obvious what the problem is. It makes it sound as if people are a resource, just like copper is a resource – or cotton, or water or any other essential raw material – whereas people are the essential resource: organisations can hope to survive the absence or the scarcity of any other resource provided that they have the people in place with the wit and energy to carry out the necessary transformation to cope with the new conditions.

The key competence is adaptability

In a changing world, the key competence is adaptability. The most perfect processes will become outmoded or irrelevant; only people are capable of making the necessary transition from what works now to what will work in the new environment. And to do this, people need to be engaged, committed, empowered and enabled. They need to be alert to changes in the outside world and certain that their hunches and feelings about that outside world will be listened to and taken seriously. And the organisation needs to structure itself in such a way that it taps into the ideas and energies of all these people, rather than relying on the wisdom (or otherwise) of the few.

The authors of this article have recently published a book called My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the Organisation from the Industrial Era to the Age of Ideas. In the book we argue (as you have probably guessed from the title) that the mindset of many organisations is still stuck somewhere around the time of the Second Industrial Revolution in the US in the early 20th century – the era in which many of today’s global giants were either born or began to emerge as mighty industrial concerns: corporations such as the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola and many others. You can’t necessarily blame people for thinking: if it worked for those guys, why would it not work for us? But the fact is that the industrial mindset really isn’t working in the knowledge economy. The obsession with control, measurement and so-called efficiency continues to create a stressed and unhappy working environment in which creativity is stifled and engagement is destroyed. Our steam engines really are broken, and it is time to stop patching them up and to transform them.