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6 Ways to Fight the #1 Career Killer

Self Development

A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief.  ~Proverbs 6:10-11

This proverb has always stuck with me as a warning of the consequences of staying too comfortable.  The saying asserts that, day by day, there is an accumulation of small decisions we make to stay in our comfort zone–to do the “easy” thing.  And then little by little, these daily decisions to stay in one place reap their consequence–the lack of prosperity.  This is the consequence that robs you of your true potential.  At times I have thought of this quote in the context of career terms.  Perhaps it would go something like, “A little time watching the clock, a little time doing meaningless reports, and a stagnant career will come on you like a thief.”

The tricky part of this proverb is that a slow accumulation of making small daily decisions to not “work hard” leads to an unfortunate end that is a surprise to the person.  This feeling of security while being unaware of the potential danger is the definition of complacency.   So what are the signs of complacency in one’s career?  What sets two people apart who start the same entry-level job on the same day, where one makes a slow ascent with few promotions while the other steadily progresses to become the head of the entire business unit?  Because complacency slowly and silently can take root in someone’s career over a span of years without them realizing it, I call it the #1 Career Killer.  While complacency is not always easy to recognize, there are some consistent habits of successful people that, if modeled, can get people out of the mindset of comfort zone and into the mindset of striving.

Here are some habits of individuals who successfully avoid becoming complacent:

  1. They question the reasons behind the tasks they do to make certain that tasks have a necessary purpose to meet overall business objectives.  They do not fall into a routine of doing things because “that’s the way they have always been done,” or because they were asked to do them.  Rather, they understand the big-picture goals they need to achieve and they line up daily actions to ensure that there is congruence.  If certain tasks do not fall in line with the business objectives, they stop doing them.
  2. They have goals that they are constantly working towards, reviewing, revising and resetting.  Having an active plan to achieve goals keeps people in a mindset of constant action to achieve an objective. The key is to make the plan, and then to consistently evaluate results to ensure successful follow-through and execution of the plan.
  3. They are constantly looking for new opportunities to improve.  This perpetual mindset of always looking to improve keeps them striving to refine their skills, to change their approach and to advance their execution of objectives.
  4. They do not feel their job is “easy”.  There may be times during a career where someone may not feel perpetually challenged.  However, someone who is not complacent will always push himself and make his own challenges even when the inherent task at hand seems relatively simple.  George Keller said, “To think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted.”  To evade complacency, one must always see possibilities, even in things that may seem mundane on the surface.
  5. They have a clear plan for what they need to do to get to the next level.  The end goal is always clear in the mind of a high achiever.  And since they are always thinking of improvement and how to reach their objectives, they prioritize making plans to achieve their goals.
  6. They think in terms of what accomplishes big picture objectives, not what checks items off of a list.  It is so easy to mistake the feeling of success that you get from being busy as a sign that you are achieving your long term goals.  But the truth is that success only comes from achieving results.  People who are not complacent understand that completing a list of tasks, while they may be necessary for one’s work, do not equate to achieving success.  Success only comes from the results of achieving your overarching goals.

Complacency is the enemy of success, and the best way to avoid it is to remain in a mindset of consistent improvement.  The legendary former General Electric CEO Jack Welch has broadcast this message again and again.  He said,

“The mindset of yesterday’s manager – accepting compromise, keeping things tidy – bred complacency. Tomorrow’s leaders must raise issues, debate them, and resolve them. They must rally around a vision of what a business can become.”

And as advice on a personal level on avoiding complacency, he said, “You’ve got to be constantly raising the bar. Finding that thing that makes you win has to keep being escalated all the time.”  If you want to keep your career alive and thriving, keep challenging yourself to improve, and weed out complacency every day.

Why We Need to See the Best in People

Positive Leadership

Early in my career, I learned a lesson that I carry with me to this day.  At the time, I was newly placed at the head of a group that was, in a word, struggling.  They fell short of nearly every performance goal, and stood out at the bottom of rankings when stacked up against work groups elsewhere in the company.  In an effort to target results, I began getting to know them and made a number of changes in the way information was communicated.  We instituted robust coaching and training to target the areas in which we were weak.  I worked with the team to set goals and communicated progress regularly.  And together with the management team, we took extra hours to work with people one-on-one to focus on work habits to help them hit their target goals. It seemed like we were doing all the right things, but each month when performance measures would come out, I was dismayed to see that our team had made little to no improvement.

Over time we kept at it, trying to improve our results.  No improvement.  I became discouraged, wondering if the reality was simply that we didn’t have the right people with the necessary skills on the team.  It was at this point that I met a colleague who shared with me the power of seeing the potential that lies within each person.  She explained that she had to work on her own view of her team and their capabilities, because her thoughts about their potential translated into their belief of their capabilities, which in turn translated into their performance results.  In short, she shared that it was my own thoughts about my team’s shortcomings that was leading to our poor performance results.

At first, this was a tough concept to process.  I didn’t believe that I was thinking negatively about my team members.  And plus, whatever thoughts were in my head had minimal impact because they were just in my head…right?  I found that this was not the case.  The great neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl compared this phenomenon to the method of landing an airplane.  Using the technique called “crabbing”, a pilot needs to overshoot his landing target in order to land in the right spot in the midst of a crosswind.  It is in this same manner, he explains, that we must see the best in people.  For if we can see the best parts in others, only then can they truly realize their potential.  However, if we see people for what they currently are, they will never be able to reach their full potential.  So that was my problem–I was seeing my team for what they currently were.  But what I needed to see was the very best parts of each person to see their true potential.

In order for me to see the best in each person, I had to retrain my thoughts.  I had to stop focusing on each person’s weakness and work to find what each person’s strengths were.  I worked to train my thoughts to think of these strengths and the potential associated with the strengths when I thought of the person.  It is true that we needed to improve on the weaknesses in our team, but I learned that the best way to do that was not by focusing on their weaknesses.  I needed to focus on their strengths.

The results of this single change in thinking to alter the way that I thought of my team members was astounding.  Suddenly people seemed more enthusiastic about their work.  Team members were more willing to embrace changes in the office.  And most importantly, we started to see the lift in performance we had wanted to see.  In fact, that year our sales showed the highest increase out of all the offices countrywide–over 30% sales growth.

The lesson that I learned through this experience was perfectly summed up by Goethe:

The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.

Leaders have the weighty responsibility of inspiring those around them, and the only way this can be accomplished is if they are able to instill each person with a vision of what can be possible.  In this sense, the mindset of a leader needs to be trained to not focus on the present appearence of people’s capabilities, but on what their abilities can yield in the future.  Only when this happens can we unlock the potential that lies within each person.

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