Make Your Career a Success by Your Own Measure – by Monique Valcour

As a manager, how can you cultivate a sense of career growth and development for your people, even when possibilities for promotion are limited or nonexistent? I posed this question to my human resource management students recently. (The context was that we’d just been considering some evidence that “Gen Y” employees are likely to head for the doors if they don’t see short-term prospects for career advancement.) While my students generated several promising ideas, some advocated an approach that dismayed me: Companies should increase the layers of management, they argued, to provide for more frequent promotions.

Of course I understood why they might think so, but this was a “be careful what you wish for” moment. Anyone old enough to have worked in the many-layered organizational structure of the past knows its shortcomings.

But what bothered me most about their idea was the reminder of how many of us feel lost without external signposts to mark our success.  Particularly for young people, it is a tough transition to leave the familiar and clear markers of school success behind and learn to thrive on the more ambiguous ones that mark a lifetime of employment.  Crafting a truly successful career demands a high level of self-awareness and ability to self-direct, capacities that schools and universities don’t always do a great job of developing.

As an example, let me introduce you to Sam.  Sam grew up in a close-knit family in a US community with excellent schools.  His father is a sales manager, his mother a pediatrician. Always a top student, Sam did well as an accounting major in the honors program of his state’s excellent flagship public university, graduated and took a job with a financial services firm. That is where his story took a more somber turn.  He struggled with the work and found the corporate culture alienating. Used to outperforming his peers, Sam was shocked at his first performance review when his boss informed him that his performance ratings were unacceptably low. He had six months to improve.

Having always understood the rules and done well playing by them, Sam felt adrift for the first time in his life. Rather than wait for the ax to fall in a job that made him increasingly miserable, he quit after four months with no idea what to do next and moved back home. Although only marginally interested in a legal career, he submitted law-school applications in order to quell his parents’ anxious daily questioning about his career direction as well as the invasive thought that he was a fraud and a loser. At least, he told himself, I know how to be a good student.

Employees of any age can suffer from a similarly constrained career perspective. I recently coached Thomas, an employee in his late thirties, who was thrown into crisis when he discovered that his new boss hadn’t nominated him for the company’s high-potential program. He found it difficult to focus on anything else. A broader view of career success would be helpful to Thomas, as it would be to Sam and to the students in my classroom discussion. It would enable them to tap into a wider repertoire of responses and gain more learning and insight from their experiences.

People do not advance in the broader arenas of career and life by taking linear steps and acing assignments that are carefully constructed to allow them to prove mastery. They do it by navigating the unpredictable events and conditions that both work and non-work life throw at them — and responding and adapting in the ways that make sense for them. If you’re dependent on external markers to judge whether your career is successful, you will find them, but only in some realms and on certain dimensions of achievement. If you only pay attention to only this limited set of success indicators, you are less likely to experience your career as successful. Imagine going to a sumptuous buffet dinner, but only tasting the salad. It won’t be satisfying.

Visible, objectively measurable achievements such as sales results, salary, bonuses, and promotions are forms of career success that we tend to fixate on—sometimes to the point that we overlook other aspects that are just as valuable to us. It’s important to consider both objective and subjective markers of success. The perceptions and feelings we have about our work experiences and what we achieve affect us as much as the extrinsic rewards do. Consider the fact that there are plenty of people who look successful, who hold high-level positions and earn impressive salaries, yet who feel unfulfilled in their careers.

Be mindful, too, that a piece of work can prove “successful” through individual experience and through interaction with other people. You can feel success when you accomplish your own goals as an individual, when you develop greater understanding of a problem and perceive a solution, or when you express your identity or your values through your work. You can taste success in interpersonal settings, when for example you develop an excellent mutual understanding and rapport with a supervisor or mentor, or help other people to grow, or have a positive impact through your work on the organization or its external customers. Research shows that such subjective and relational experiences contribute enormously to assessments of career success.

Finally, if the promotions and raises a boss can dole out are the only forms of career success you recognize, then at times when there are no higher-level openings to move into, or when budget cuts prevent salary freezes, you have set yourself up to become demoralized. Being able to think broadly about career success and to identify your successes for yourself is essential to resilience.

With this in mind, I encourage you to take a few minutes now to reexamine your own work experiences, and identify successes you might have overlooked. Not earning as much as you’d like? Perhaps you’ve gained creativity by working with highly talented colleagues. Concerned that it’s been several years since your last promotion? Don’t negate the value of your having grown into a recognized subject-matter expert in a strategically valuable area for your firm.

To stimulate your thinking, here are some additional indicators that may help you recognize your own career success more fully, or help you identify pathways toward greater success:

  • Performing work that you find interesting and fascinating
  • Overcoming challenges
  • Having autonomy in how you perform your work
  • Developing new skills and deepening existing ones
  • Having work and personal life complement and enrich each other
  • Doing work that gives you new insights into yourself, your organization or your industry
  • Being recognized as an expert
  • Having the trust of your colleagues and superiors
  • Building valuable relationships inside and outside of your organization
  • Contributing to shared knowledge in your organization by training others
  • Enjoying career stability and employment security
  • Collaborating effectively with a team of talented colleagues
  • Receiving recognition for your achievements and contributions
  • Seeing the positive impact of your work on end users or on society
  • Leaving a legacy that you’re proud of

Now consider: as nice as external markers and affirmations are to get, would you really rather have them than any of the above? Yes, you deserve both. But keep in mind that careers are long, and that it’s rare to experience all forms of career success simultaneously.

You need to develop the awareness and adaptability to notice, appreciate, and exploit opportunities to enjoy career success in all its different forms, even if the most explicit, generic forms of recognition aren’t currently available. With practice and attention, you can reap your own harvest from a wide variety of work experiences, and as a result, enjoy a richer and more satisfying career.

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Monique Valcour is a professor of management at EDHEC Business School in France. Her research, teaching, and consulting focuses on helping companies and individuals craft high-performance, meaningful jobs, careers, workplaces, and lives. Follow her on Twitter @moniquevalcour.

How to Get a Job at Google – by Thomas L. Friedman

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — LAST June, in an interview with Adam Bryant of The Times, Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google — i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies — noted that Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.” He also noted that the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time” — now as high as 14 percent on some teams. At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer.

Don’t get him wrong, Bock begins, “Good grades certainly don’t hurt.” Many jobs at Google require math, computing and coding skills, so if your good grades truly reflect skills in those areas that you can apply, it would be an advantage. But Google has its eyes on much more.

“There are five hiring attributes we have across the company,” explained Bock. “If it’s a technical role, we assess your coding ability, and half the roles in the company are technical roles. For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive.”

The second, he added, “is leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

What else? Humility and ownership. “It’s feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in,” he said, to try to solve any problem — and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. “Your end goal,” explained Bock, “is what can we do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.”

And it is not just humility in creating space for others to contribute, says Bock, it’s “intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn.” It is why research shows that many graduates from hotshot business schools plateau. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure,” said Bock.

“They, instead, commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved. … What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ ” You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.

The least important attribute they look for is “expertise.” Said Bock: “If you take somebody who has high cognitive ability, is innately curious, willing to learn and has emergent leadership skills, and you hire them as an H.R. person or finance person, and they have no content knowledge, and you compare them with someone who’s been doing just one thing and is a world expert, the expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’ ” Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer, added Bock, “because most of the time it’s not that hard.” Sure, once in a while they will mess it up, he said, but once in a while they’ll also come up with an answer that is totally new. And there is huge value in that.

To sum up Bock’s approach to hiring: Talent can come in so many different forms and be built in so many nontraditional ways today, hiring officers have to be alive to every one — besides brand-name colleges. Because “when you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.” Too many colleges, he added, “don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.”

Google attracts so much talent it can afford to look beyond traditional metrics, like G.P.A. For most young people, though, going to college and doing well is still the best way to master the tools needed for many careers. But Bock is saying something important to them, too: Beware. Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job. The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it). And in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.