Why ‘sticking things out’ from a sense of obligation is bad for your career
Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford discuss elements of their new book 'Machiavellian Intelligence: How to survive and thrive in the modern corporation'.
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.
People are promoted for their potential as much as for their current contributions.
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.
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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.
About the authors
Jonathan Gifford is a business author whose books include 'History Lessons: What business and management can learn from the great leaders of history' and 'Blindsided: How business and society are shaped by our irrational and unpredictable behaviour'. Dr Mark Powell is an independent consultant and business writer and an Associate Fellow of Oxford University’s SAID Business School.
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