Ambitious professionals often spend a substantial amount of time thinking about strategies that will help them achieve greater levels of success. They strive for a more impressive job title, higher compensation, and responsibility for more sizable revenues, profits, and numbers of employees. Their definitions of success are often heavily influenced by family, friends, and colleagues.
Yet many ultimately find that, despite their efforts and accomplishments, they lack a true sense of professional satisfaction and fulfillment. During my career with Goldman Sachs, as well as over the past few years of teaching and coaching managers and MBA students at Harvard Business School, I have met a surprisingly large number of impressive executives who expressed deep frustration with their careers. They looked back and felt that they should have achieved more or even wished that they had chosen a different career altogether.
Consider a very successful research analyst at a large securities firm who came to see me because he was discouraged with his career progress. This was particularly ironic because he was well known, highly regarded (ranked number one in his industry sector), and well compensated. He told me that, after 10 years, he was tired of his job, disliked his boss, and felt he had no potential for further upward mobility. Most of all, he had always wanted to be an investment manager, but he had started out as an analyst and never really reassessed his career path. He felt trapped. He feared losing his stature and didn’t want to let anyone down, but at the same time he didn’t want to keep doing what he was doing.
As we talked, he wondered if he’d been so busy trying to reach specific milestones and impress other people that he’d lost sight of what he really enjoyed doing. The truth was that he loved analyzing stocks and assessing management teams, but he also wanted to have the responsibility for making the actual investment decisions and then be held accountable for the results. I encouraged him to take action and speak to a number of investment firms (including his current employer) about a career change. After doing this, he ultimately was offered and accepted a portfolio manager position in the asset management division of his current firm. He learned that his firm’s leaders wanted to retain him regardless of job description and that they were quite surprised to find out he wanted to be on the investment side of the business. He has since become a superb investment manager, and although he wishes he’d stepped back and reexamined his career years earlier, he’s thrilled that he made the switch while there was “still time.”
If you are experiencing similar feelings of frustration or even regret about the direction of your career, this article is intended to help you examine the question, “Am I reaching my potential?” This is not the same as asking, “How do I rise to the top?” or “How can I be successful in my career?” Rather, it’s about taking a very personal look at how you define success in your heart of hearts and then finding your path to get there.
To do that, you must step back and reassess your career—starting with the recognition that managing it is your responsibility. Too many people feel like victims in their careers, when in fact they have a substantial degree of control. Seizing control requires you to take a fresh look at your behavior in three main areas: knowing yourself, excelling at critical tasks, and demonstrating character and leadership.
Taking responsibility for your career starts with an accurate assessment of your current skills and performance. Can you write down your two or three greatest strengths and your two or three most significant weaknesses? While most people can detail their strengths, they often struggle to identify key weaknesses. This exercise involves meaningful reflection and, almost always, requires soliciting the views of people who will tell you the brutal truth. Unfortunately, you often can’t count on your boss to accurately assess your strengths or to be willing to confront you with what you’re doing wrong. It’s up to you to take control of this process by seeking coaching, asking for very specific feedback, and being receptive to input from a wide variety of people at various levels within your organization. This gathering of feedback needs to be an ongoing process because, as your career progresses, you will face new challenges and demands.
Recently I met with a division head of a large professional services firm. Though he’d been a rising star for several years, he felt he’d begun to stagnate. His direct reports and his CEO no longer seemed engaged and enthusiastic in their dealings with him, and he didn’t know why. In our discussions, he was able to specifically describe his strengths, but when I asked about his weaknesses, he gave me fairly generic responses, such as “Maybe I’m too impatient” and “I need to raise my profile.” When I pressed him about feedback from his boss he still struggled to identify even one specific weakness. I sent him off on an assignment: Interview at least five colleagues and subordinates.
Robert S. Kaplan