Hitting the Wall: Why Careers Stall and What to Do About It

I was interviewing for my first management position with a major corporation, and going in I was supremely confident. So far I’d gotten every job I’d ever pitched, and I saw no reason why this time would be any different. Within a few minutes the executive sitting across the desk had given me the opening I was waiting for, so I began revealing the smart, self-confident, aggressive, competitive, self-starter that I was sure that he, like everyone else, was looking for.

But pretty soon I realized that there was something wrong. The executive never even nodded his head, and I realized that he was merely waiting for me to run down like some wind up phonograph from a bygone era. Yet even when I did stop talking, he didn’t say anything. Instead he just looked at me steadily with a slightly bemused look on his face.

“Wow,” he finally said leaning back in his chair, “you’re coming on like a tank. I got you pegged as an ‘I, me, and miner,’ and we’re looking for a team player who knows how to build a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts . . .”

There was more, but before I could respond to his withering critique he was already shaking my hand, and as he walked me to the door, he blithely recommended that I should go into “something like commercial real estate” where I could be “a one man band” and still be “very successful.”

This interview was by far the shortest of my career, and it was all the more devastating because I couldn’t shake the conviction that the man who had just shown me the door was a good human being who had taken no pleasure whatsoever in psychologically taking me off at the knees.

* * *

Sooner or later almost every career seems to “hit the wall.” Promotions are coming slower, a former colleague is now your boss’ boss, and that sense that your career has “stalled” becomes almost suffocating. When this happens most of us decide that we have outlived our “skill set.” It is time “go back to school” — either literally for an MBA or metaphorically by “reading a few books.”

However Louis R. Mobley, my mentor and one of the founders of the IBM Executive School back in 1956, would utterly disagree with this diagnosis. According to Mobley, what distinguishes people at the highest rungs of an organization from those at the lower rungs is not skills and knowledge but values and attitudes. Successful leaders don’t know different things. They think in utterly different ways. And as I had to learn the hard way by being shown the door, one of the most important values that successful executives share is the ability to put the interests of “the whole,” “the team,” and others ahead of his own.

Early on in almost any career we can usually achieve a modicum of success by dint of our own efforts. Individual ambition and competitive fire are usually more than enough to get a career off to a fast start. But it is almost axiomatic in business that sooner or later these very same values begin to cause trouble. Intent on being the smartest person in the room, our aspiring corporate hero never learns how to share credit, admit mistakes, accept criticism, reach out for help, become a good listener, show vulnerability, or perhaps most importantly, how to take more satisfaction in the success of others than he does in his own.

Unfortunately, like Bill Murray’s character in the movie Ground Hog Day, it is very difficult to abandon a selfish world view and value system and replace it with a more selfless model: a model that is all too often pejoratively associated with “losers” and “wimps.” Instead, and again like Murray’s character, it often seems far easier to repeat the same selfish mistakes over and over than to embark on a journey into a scary unknown: a journey that means, quite literally, becoming an entirely different sort of person.

But by returning to Murray’s character one last time we discover that sometimes there is a breakthrough. Through a mentor, coach, loving spouse, or just a confluence of circumstances sometimes we “give in,” “let go,” and “surrender” our selfish worldview. Like a devotee of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Step Program, we begin putting the interests of others ahead of our own, and when we do our stalled career usually takes off. Paradoxically, now that we are no longer so concerned with climbing the corporate ladder, we often start taking three rungs at a time.

This is what happened to me. That crushing interview sent me into a tailspin. Though I initially reacted with anger and defensiveness, I eventually realized that the executive who had interviewed me was right: I was in fact an “I, me, and miner.” But as painful as that was to admit, the prospect of living out my life that way was more painful still. I made up my mind to change, and it was this decision that led me to move in with Mobley and his family and get an education about life that went far beyond what any mere set of business skills could provide.

Though it has been over thirty years, and I can’t even remember his name, I now consider that interview to be the best and most productive interview I ever had. It was the catalyst that sent me on a path toward reinventing myself, and for that reason alone I am deeply grateful.

© 2013 August Turak, author of Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity

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