There are times when everything goes wrong with your career plans. This happens often in life. It happened to me multiple times …
We work with many partners and executives and they sometimes break contact for a few months. When they resurface the most common reason provided is that things went chaotically off track and they needed time to stop everything, including their personal development, to fix the problem and regroup before resuming with their careers.
It happens to all of us. We can all recall times when things became so bad we felt like quitting and barely made it through. I can personally recall a few such times earlier in my life. And the common theme is that most clients feel blindsided when chaos occurs. They are shocked that it happened.
We are dealing with some chaotic times in our organization. What helps us manage this is operating under the assumption that the very worst that could happen will happen. We are not hoping to avoid the problems. We have a plan for when they eventually will likely happen. And they will happen. The exact problems may not be what we expected but we expect catastrophic problems.
This is a stark departure from the way the world is usually run and the way most clients run their careers. This is especially true for the majority of our clients who assume a platinum education, employer and residency will insulate them from any possible shock.
If a client makes a $250,000 salary with bonuses in the current year, clients just assume this will be their salary plus a 2% yearly increase for the next 30 years.
Clients spend to the hilt. We have clients who have canceled a monthly premium membership subscription to buy a home. A home is a worthy investment but it is unwise to invest in anything where the margin for a severe cash crisis is the cost of a monthly premium subscription.
Most clients do not have a contingency plan for health problems. What happens if you cannot work for 6 months? What happens if you lose your job? What happens if your company’s market share collapses?
Our operating philosophy is called “be prepared to play in extra time.” It is a football (soccer) analogy. Most football teams try to win the game during regular time and give up if the game goes to extra time. We believe things will be tough and we need to have a strategy to fight it out in extra time.
We expect to be playing in extra time.
There are important insights here. If a football game is 45 mins x 2 halves. That is 90 minutes. Extra time is 15 mins x 2 halves. That means we have to be prepared to be working 33% (30 min / 90min) longer and harder than anyone else.
It means we have to be fitter. We have to have more energy reserves. We need to set aside time to practice for this.
This is a mindset. Surprises are bad when they are surprises. They are not so bad when you expected the very worst things to happen. We discuss this much more in The MasterPlan Program, which I highly recommend Insiders revisit during this time of year.
Getting derailed in your 20s and early 30s is hard, but you will recover. Getting derailed in your late 30s and 40s results in many people getting completely stalled in their careers for the rest of their lives. In large part, because they never had the mindset to expect it. They never had the thinking and plans in place to see it through. They never looked for guidance and coaching to help them navigate out of it.
We run the companies very frugally. Frugality is a centerpiece of our operating philosophy. We invest in assets. We don’t spend on unnecessary expenses. We call this having a fortress balance sheet.
Every time you face a problem in life, it is linked to money.
A failed product launch makes you apprehensive about your job since you need the salary to pay for your mortgage, kids’ education, and your college debt. A fortress balance sheet is just that. It means having the financial resources and time to wait out any surprises.
The hard part is sticking to the plan. We use the term “stay in formation.”
If you ever work with us, you will hear these three phrases very often. Staying in formation means not panicking and worrying. It means not doing crazy and irresponsible things when things go wrong. My father sold his shares when the Russian stock market collapsed a few years ago. He did not stay in formation. He should have waited it out and I wish he would have asked for my advice or at least shared his plans.
Despite all the things that are going wrong because of COVID, especially for our start-ups, our view is things are unfolding better than we expected since we expected much worse at this point and planned for much worse.
In our view, all these obstacles may even work to our advantage since they could reduce the noise in the sectors our start-ups operate in.
Staying in formation is about sticking to the strategy because it is the right thing to do. Staying in formation does not mean asking the opinions of 10 friends who are not invested in the business and don’t understand the strategy, and changing the plans to follow the most popular advice.
Staying in formation is very hard. You need to have a contrarian view. You need to trust your earlier thinking and trust your implementation. It means disagreeing with people.
It’s possible that because I grew up during the collapse of the Former Soviet Union, having contingencies and contingencies for contingencies is the norm for me. Yet, it is your life. Even if you live in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest country in the world, you need to be ready for anything.
Especially for our community. Most of you are attracted to high-profile roles. So are your peers. Everyone is chasing too few roles. Sometimes you will get them, sometimes you will not.
And it is guaranteed as you age, your firm will decide newer, fresher minds will be needed. You will be out. Even the greatest strategy partner eventually becomes a strategy partner emeritus. And that is one of the reasons we are introducing a high support coaching program for those clients who want to work with us to start purpose-driven authority-based online businesses. If you are interested, click here to be notified and email [email protected] if you are specifically interested to apply for a spot to work with us to launch or build your authority-based online business so we can have you on the radar for a few spots we will have for the upcoming cohort.
Regardless of whether you see yourself ultimately building an authority-based business or continuing your career in the corporate world, if you model your life to be ready for the worst things, they are not so bad when it happens. It starts with not blaming yourself when bad things happen to you. It starts with not assuming someone else was at fault when things go wrong. Blaming does not serve you well. You can only live life forward.
Much in life is outside of your control. Build a fortress balance sheet. Be prepared to play in extra time and always stay in formation.
P.S. I hope you will find this message helpful. Email us at [email protected] and let us know what do you struggle with the most in your career or business. I read every reply to our emails to the FIRMSconsulting community. And my team is here to support you on your journey. Please note that due to holidays there will be a delay with reply.
P.S.S. And as you are building your skills with FIRMSconsulting content, or any other resources, please also focus on building a skill set that will serve you for the rest of your life, versus only focusing on achieving a short-term goal.
In the final piece for Strategy Insights, called “When Promotions End and the Runway Ends,” I’m going to talk through an interesting client situation. We have an Insider, who later also became a coaching client, named Addie. He works for a large multinational company. There’s nothing unusual about his career. He worked in industry for a long time. He did his executive MBA when he was 32-34 at a very good school. He interviewed at many firms and then joined this large multinational company. Like any immigrant, he wants to follow the American dream of having a healthy and wealthy family and life, but to also contribute to society, to be part of the fabric of a company that’s making a big change for the good—not just in the US, but for the world as well.
Addie followed our StrategyTraining.com programs to figure out ways to make his team as successful as possible. He did a number of things well and if you want to know what those things are you can read any of our journals or watch any of our programs where we teach all of those techniques. I’ll summarize just a few things, but there are obviously a lot more layers behind this.
The first thing he did well was to really understand who the customer is and what they want. Rather than saying these are the resources available to the company, he asked, “Who is the customer? What is their life like? What are their pain points? And how do we build the resources, products and services they need, even if it’s not what we currently have, and even if it’s not what we can offer, or where we don’t have the skills to make a quick, adjacent move?” He did all these things, and by all conventional measures, his unit is very successful. So, he stayed in that role for about three or four years. Each performance review, he was told, “Your unit is successful. The company is very happy with what you’re doing, and we need you to keep doing what you’re doing.”
I don’t know the exact numbers, but I believe his unit was a fairly significant contributor to the firm’s overall profit. For that region of the world, he was running a unit that generated a significant amount of profit. Being the ambitious person he is, he kept doing this. He continued working hard, his team was successful by most conventional measures, whether it was about return on invested capital, return on equity—you can’t get return on equity measured, but you can estimate it against what competitors are doing.
He’s very ambitious, and being someone who wants to use the training, he gets to the point in his career where he’s about 40 years old, and he’s not getting promoted. He’s told he’s very valuable. He knows objectively that his team is doing well. He knows that they’re a big profit contributor. But the EVP doesn’t want to move him around. I would say the regional CEO also has a say in Addie’s career because he’s an important person, he runs an important team. Now, what happens with Addie is that over this period, he gets more and more disillusioned because he believes that he’s doing well, but he can’t see a way to grow his career. When you’re doing well, but you’re not challenged, you kind of zone out. Because you’re not challenged, everything’s happening and going fairly well. Internally, you suffer from burnout because you look at yourself and say, “I’m 40 years old. What do I do now?” This is what happens with many people.
He’s tried gaining new skills, which is what most people do. He’s tried learning new ways to communicate. He’s tried to network with other senior leaders of his company, both in his country and in other countries. He’s had fabulous feedback.
I want you to imagine a plane flying in the air. The imagery that comes to mind for me is a Harrison Ford movie where he’s the president, and terrorists are trying to take the plane by firing on it. When Boeings are fired upon, they have a lot of these evasive maneuvers. They normally shoot out flares, which distract the missiles so that the missiles hit the flare and the Boeing can get away.
Your career is a little like this. As you go through your career, starting at the age of 21 for most people, and as you progress higher and higher, each time you face a challenge that you feel could derail your career, you throw out a flare that helps you. An example of a flare is learning a new skill. You do an MBA. Sometimes you even change companies. Each time you throw out a flare, this missile that’s going to hit your career is distracted. So, you find ways to deflect bad things that could happen to your career.
Something people don’t talk about much is that when you get to the age of about 40, you usually don’t have any flares left. Just like that Boeing, at some point it’s going to run out of flares, and unfortunately, we don’t say much about what happens when you reach that point. When you’re in your thirties, it’s pretty easy to get an MBA, skill up in something or even switch jobs. Many people switch jobs if they think their company doesn’t appreciate them. But they almost always go to a weaker company that wants them because they worked at a better branded company. So, they get what they think is a better job, but it’s not really better because they’re going to a weaker company and leaving behind the entire social network behind that made them successful. So they going to a company that is less successful and have to start all over again.
Addie has tried all of this. When I started working with him, it had come to the point where he wanted to run a decision by me: Which company should he join? He had already decided to leave. I didn’t think it was a good decision to make because the companies he wanted to join—versus all the companies he was likely to join—were very different. The list of companies he gave me at the beginning was different from the list of companies he had interviews with. Those companies he had interviews with weren’t going to take his career to the next level unless he took a leadership role and he took the company to the next level. If he didn’t do that, for the rest of his life, he would have to explain why he left a market leader, a prestigious company, and joined another, not so great company, and didn’t really do anything there.
So, this was a big problem for him. There was a lot of despair and some failure as well. I want to talk you through how I guided him. First, I put together a plan for the client. I repeat the plan until they follow it. Sometimes I’ll repeat things in multiple sessions and a client will ask why. It’s because they’re not following the plan. It’s not enough for them to know the plan—they actually have to do it. I can’t give them the whole plan because when they do something, we have to modify the next stage of the plan. That’s just common sense.
I’ll explain what the plan was because I think it will help many readers. It’s important to know how you’re performing, but if you’re truly a leader, it doesn’t matter how you’re performing. Unless your bad performance involves smoking drugs in the office, coming in drunk every day, or engaging in inappropriate behavior with staff, the company usually doesn’t care about your performance if your team is doing well. When I say the company usually doesn’t care about your performance, I mean they don’t care about your professional performance. The company should care harassment, and they should deal with that very quickly.
If you have a high-performing, high-flying team, you’re going to get good ratings unless you’re doing something very bad on the personal front. You have to do something really bad for your team to be a breakout success but you, as a leader of the team, is getting a personal negative rating. That wasn’t the case with Addie. You could see that from speaking to him for a few minutes. He’s a really nice guy, and he wants to give to the world. He understands the privilege he has of being the first in his family to get an education, the first person in his family to come to the United States of America. He brought his mother, sisters and brothers to the US. You could give a round of applause to a guy like that. He’s very focused and determined. He doesn’t have a personal problem. I could be wrong, but I think no, he doesn’t have a personal problem.
Second, I asked him to look at the performance of his team—objectively. “What would someone looking in from the outside say about your team’s performance?” I mentioned earlier that his team is doing well, so we don’t have to go into the details.
Here’s the next question I asked him: Is your team critical to the broader organization? If your team underperformed, would the broad organization suffer? His team is critical to the broader organization because they produce a significant amount of cash flow that allows the broader company to fund expansionary plans. So, it’s very critical that Addie manage his team well.
Next, I asked him, “Do you believe you’re a valuable member of your organization?” Valuable means that if you’re not part of the organization, the organization suffers. And he said yes.
The next question is an important one, and this is the one senior people need to answer correctly to reboot their careers. You are performing well. Your team is performing well and is critical to the survival and success of this company. Now, where in the organization are you most valuable to your company? Unless your CEO doesn’t like you personally and is trying to punish you—which is almost never the case because CEOs want to bask in the glory of their success, and they like to put key people into key areas so they can focus on other areas, and they want to forget about things they don’t want to think about. So, if you’re doing well and you’re valuable to your company, they’re not going to just put you in a bad place if it’s going to hurt their performance and make the CEO look bad.
So, where are you most valuable to your company and why? This is an important question because Addie believes he is most valuable as an EVP. But clearly the company, for some reason, thinks he’s more valuable as an SVP. The question isn’t why doesn’t anyone want to promote him, but why does the company think he’s most valuable as an SVP? What is it about the way he’s running his unit that makes the company think that given Addie’s skills and success, it’s better to keep him there?
We had a series of discussions, and I said, “Let’s play out this scenario and assume you get the promotion you want, and you become an EVP. What’s going to happen?” He talked to me about how he’s going to run the new unit and install his good ideas. I agree with everything he was planning to do to run the new unit because I know that company fairly well, and I think it’s what they need in that new unit. I think he’d do a great job.
I asked him if he worked for this new unit or for the company, and he said he worked for the company. I said, “Why haven’t you spoken at all about the unit you’re going to be leaving behind, which is one of the most important units in the company? You obviously care about them. They’re important to the company. I want you to scenario-play what’s going to happen to them when you leave.”
Here’s what I got Addie to see: The unit only performs well when he’s there. The unit does not perform well without him, and this is a problem most leaders fail to appreciate as they make the transition into very senior management roles. You must be grooming a successor. That’s rule number one. If you want a role above you, you must be replacing yourself. He never saw this as something he needed to do because, like many people, he still thinks that if he grooms a successor, the successor is going to replace him, and people are going to think he’s not important. Therefore, while his unit is very successful, he needs to actually create an organizational structure and culture that is not dependent on him.
He hasn’t institutionalized, documented or captured the key things he’s doing. If he’s not there, nothing happens. Nobody knows how he deals with some clients. If nobody has ever gone along for a meeting with him, they don’t know the secret sauce of what Addie is doing, and, therefore, nobody knows how to replace him. He’s become so successful and so indispensable in his role that he cannot be removed. It’s a strategy most people follow. They build organizational structures that are so intertwined around their personalities, their processes, their systems, their emails and their voicemails, that if you remove them, everything falls apart. Yes, he’s very valuable and respected, but the team cannot work without him. That’s the problem.
Step one is to create a one-year plan. You need to groom a successor. Step two is to get the team to be able to work without you, which means that you need to teach people all the key things you’re doing—not to one person, but to several people, so you don’t run into this problem again. Step three is to set up systems, processes and meetings so that decisions can be made without you. That means you need to change the delegation of authority, which means you need to change the culture of the unit. That’s a big one because now everyone knows that if you want to make a decision, you have to go to Addie.
There’s nothing wrong with that. You’ve got a good culture, but it’s the wrong culture. Once you’ve done all of that, and the unit is performing well, then you need to have a discussion with leadership about how the unit’s doing well, you have a succession plan, and it’s important to bring in new leaders from outside the organization into that unit. And it’s important to promote someone that is more junior in that organization into senior role that Addie previously had. You have to explain the conveyor belt, and of course if you talk about that, the question becomes, what’s next for you on the conveyor belt?
He followed that program for just over a year, and it was very successful for him. I want you to think about that as you’re a senior person or on the cusp of seniority. Don’t fall into the trap of just doing everything for yourself.
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This is an excerpt from Monday Morning 8 a.m. newsletter, issue #25. Many of you have found Monday Morning 8 a.m. so useful that you’ve asked us to release a book version of these newsletters. We’ve obliged and released a Kindle version, which you can find on Amazon under “Strategy Insights.” It contains the insights from previous Monday Morning 8 a.m. issues, edited into a bite-sized format that’s very easy to use. And you can learn about other FIRMSconsulting books here.
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