Promising Careers Are Also a Venus Flytrap
I want to wrap up today’s Monday Morning 8 a.m. by talking about a big theme I see with executive coaching clients. I call this theme: “Promising careers are also a Venus flytrap.” When I work with clients, I ask them how their career is going. We’ve developed a strategy for them, so I ask them about the results they’re seeing. They often get excited and say, “I saw a 5%, 10% increase in my compensation year-on-year.” Then I always correct them and say, “Let’s remove inflation from that first, and let’s remove the mean increase in the base salary and bonuses that your peers received because that’s your net improvement in your career.” Remember to always do this. Don’t just say you’re getting a 20% salary increase and your colleagues are getting a 30% salary increase, because that’s a problem. Or don’t get excited about a 10% salary increase when inflation in your country is actually 15% because then they’re actually paying you less.
Let’s assume your net, your real improvement, is actually 15% a year, which is pretty good. When clients get excited about that, I always caution them that they’re falling for what I call the Venus flytrap. That means that 5%, 10%, 15% improvement in your career is nice. Of course, you feel good about that. You feel comfortable. When you go to Christmas parties with your family, you don’t feel so bad when your brother drives up in a convertible Porsche and tells you about his thriving business and so on. But if you extrapolate a 10% growth in your career over 5-10 years, it’s not that significant. That means your salary is going to more than double by year 10. It may seem like a lot, but let’s work with the numbers. Most of our clients are between the ages of 35 and 45 in executive coaching, and they are senior, successful people. Those are not people who are struggling. They’re executive vice presidents, senior vice presidents, some of them are chief operating officers, some of them are very senior partners in consulting firms. If you’re earning $350,000 a year, in 10 years you’ll be earning a little over $700,000 a year. That may seem like a lot to you now, but in 10 years that’s likely not going to seem like a lot to you.
Here’s a big insight. When your career is not going very well—let’s assume you’re not getting an increase, you’re not getting promoted, you know it is going badly, and then you have a burning platform to make a big change to your career. If your career is showing a 5-15% improvement—it’s a dangerous place because you’re doing well enough that you think with a little bit more effort and time, you can do very well, so you keep to your existing plan for the next 5 to 10 years. But if you’re 35, and you’re 45 when you realize your plan didn’t work, what can you do with your career?
I always tell clients that you want to be in two of three places. You want to be doing really badly in your career, so you have an incentive to change it. Or you want to be doing really well where the improvement is material, and you don’t need to change much, although you still need to change some things. But you don’t want to be in a place where it’s just good enough to justify continuing what you’re doing because you could end up burning up a lot of your life.
You need to not change some things, and to change some things. Let me explain what that means. I have a client who runs a resources company, and part of their operations are in Central Asia. He has built a good system to run his teams, and he believes that to go to the next level, he has to run his teams harder and work harder. But how much more can he work, realistically? He doesn’t even see his wife and children. He doesn’t need to optimize his system; he needs a new system. In his current system, he uses our Leadership Journal, High-Performance-Planner Journal, The Strategy Journal and Career Strategy Journal, which teach him how he can manage his teams to get the best out of them. It’s a system of controlling his teams. He wants to put that on steroids—have more meetings and more projects, so he moves up in the world. I told him that he needs to move from a system of control to a system that controls. In the system of control, we showed him how to manage meetings so that he gets his team delivering on the critical path tasks for important projects. For the system that controls, I now need him to step out of the management of his teams so that the system he puts in place gets them to deliver without him being in every meeting.
It took me a long time to get him to think that way, but that’s what he needs to do. He needs to move away from the system and running everything so that he has time to think about: Are we doing the right things? Are we pursuing the right initiatives? Is my company investing in the right ventures in Central Asia?
As you continue with your career, be careful of getting “just good enough” success—because that might be the best you’ll ever get. If you think it can get better, it may not get better, and you may be stuck there.
I give this example to clients who go down the traditional path: You study very hard in high school, you get into a good university, preferably Ivy League. Then you graduate, struggling a little bit to graduate with great grades and belong to the right clubs. You’re 21 or 22. Then you work for two years at a brand name company. Then you get your MBA at around 24 or 25. You spend two years doing your MBA, and you get out when you’re 27. If you play your cards right, you get into a prestigious firm, which means that if you do everything right, you get to what would be the equivalent of a junior partner by the time you’re about 32, maybe 31 if you’re good—senior partner by the time you’re 33-35, if you’re lucky.
What happens if you follow this path from the time you’re in high school, but you don’t really have breakout success—you just do good enough to give yourself confidence that you’re going to have breakout success? By the time you get to 35, you realize that you’ve done something wrong. That’s the danger of following the “just good enough” path. By the time you realize it, you’ve actually failed, you’ve burnt up so much of your life that it’s pretty hard to put together a career transformation. It’s not impossible by the time you’re 35, but in some cases, I’ve seen people trying to do that when they’re 45.
Don’t celebrate “good enough.” It’s a trap everyone’s fallen for at some stage in their life—whether it’s a week, a month or a year. At some point in your life, you’re going to fall for it, which is okay. But you need to shake out of it. Make sure that you’re not in it for 5, 10, 15 years. If you’re doing the same thing for five years and getting some basic successes, you have to step out and say, “What am I doing wrong?” Remember the rule. It’s not about what assets and capabilities you have. It’s about thinking about who it is you’re trying to impress, and how to serve them.
This is an excerpt from Monday Morning 8 a.m. newsletter, issue #15.