I recently reviewed a resume for a colleague who was trying to define a clearer career strategy. She has terrific experience. And yet, as I looked through it I could see the problem she was concerned about: she had done so many good things in so many different fields it was hard to know what was distinctive about her.
As we talked it became clear the resume was only the symptom of a deeper issue. In an attempt to be useful and adaptable she has said yes to too many good projects and opportunities. She has ended up feeling overworked and underutilized. It is easy to see how people end up in her situation:
Step 1: Capable people are driven to achieve.
Step 2: Other people see they are capable and give them assignments.
Step 3: Capable people gain a reputation as “go to” people. They become “good old [insert name] who is always there when you need him.” There is lots right with this, unless or until…
Step 4: Capable people end up doing lots of projects well but are distracted from what would otherwise be their highest point of contribution which I define as the intersection of talent, passion and market (see more on this in the Harvard Business Review article The Disciplined Pursuit of Less). Then, both the company and the employee lose out.
When this happens, some of the responsibility lies with out-of-touch managers who are too busy or distracted to notice the very best use of their people. But some of the responsibility lies with us. Perhaps we need to be more deliberate and discerning in navigating our own careers.
In the conversation above, we spent some time to identify my colleague’s Highest Point of Contribution and develop a plan of action for a more focused career strategy.
We followed a simple process similar to one I write about here: If You Don’t Design Your Career, Someone Else Will. My friend is not alone. Indeed, in coaching and teaching managers and executives around the world it strikes me that failure to be conscientious about this represents the #1 mistake, in frequency, I see capable people make in their careers.
Using a camping metaphor, capable people often add additional poles of the same height to their career tent. We end up with 10, 20 or 30 poles of the same height, somehow hoping the tent will go higher. I don’t just mean higher on the career ladder either. I mean higher in terms of our ability to contribute.
The slightly painful truth is, at any one time there is only one piece of real estate we can “own” in another person’s mind. People can’t think of us as a project manager, professor, attorney, insurance agent, editor and entrepreneur all at exactly the same time. They may all be true about us but people can only think of us as one thing first. At any one time there is only one phrase that can follow our name. Might we be better served by asking, at least occasionally, whether the various projects we have add up to a longer pole?
I saw this illustrated some time ago in one of the more distinctive resumes I have seen. It belonged to a Stanford Law School Professor [there it is: the single phrase that follows his name, the longest pole in his career tent]. His resume was clean and concise. For each entry there was one impressive title/role/school and a succinct description of what he had achieved. Each sentence seemed to say more than ten typical bullet points in many resumes I have seen. When he was at university he had been the student body president, under “teaching” he was teacher of the year and so on.
Being able to do many things is important in many jobs today. Broad understanding also is amust. But developing greater discernment about what is distinctive about us can be a great advantage. Instead of simply doing more things we need to find, at every phase in our careers, our highest point of contribution.
I look forward to your thoughts below and @gregorymckeown.
Read the original post: The #1 Career Mistake Capable People Make – Linkedin Blog
12 thoughts on “The #1 Career Mistake Capable People Make”
YOUR ANALOGY OF THE TENT AND THE CENTRAL POLE WAS SUPERB…. BUT LIKE A FORMER BOY SCOUT I WOULD ASK SHOULD THE TENT ALWAYS BE HIGHER WHY NOT BROADER…
THIS IS TRUE MOST IN MY EXPERIENCE AS A CEO MENTOR AND SUCCESSION PLANNING IN INDIA… A CEO CAN’T MERELY ( REPEAT MERELY) BE A CRACK SPECIALIST… THE BEST CEO IS A WELL ROUNDED PROFESSIONAL AND BEING A JACK OF A FEW TRADES MAKES FOR THE RAREST FORM OF SPECIALIZATION… A BROAD TENT AND NOT MERELY A TALL ONE!!!
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Brilliant article! To answer your question, I don’t think that you can ever truly know with certainty whether the good things are getting in the way of achieving the great things. That said, trusting your belly-barometer is the best way I know to tell. A belly-barometer is a gut feeling. That thing inside of you that gives you momentary resistance or momentary excitement. It may be slight, but usually your gut is not wrong. I can not tell you the number of times I have been asked to do something or help out with a worthy cause, and despite a momentary internal resistance, I agreed to do so. Most of these times, I regretted my decisions. And I regretted my decisions, not because the causes were not worthy. Rather, because they prevented me from doing other things that were more worthwhile. Time is our most sacred resource. Most of us need to value it more, and more carefully consider the opportunities in front of us.
I have been many things throughout my careers. Had many titles after my name but none that I would say is my “highest point of contribution”. Your blog hits home almost painfully as I am setting out to find a new career after being employed for over 35 years.And never one day without a job.One could say that I am a jack of all trades and a master of none. Not a good thing when that is not an option on a pull down screen asking “what you want to be ” ! I am living what you are writting and will start to define just which one of my many tent poles is the longer one and work that hard in my efforts to find employment.
Thank you, I really appreciated this as well as your HBR article ” The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.
I wanted to know how the Japanese are all alike totally disciplined to result in a system if one is disciplined and honest from anywhere in the world he can exist there more happily than say for example in India. From there I have landed on to your beautiful article from connections. How does a sincere professional exist in a chaotic place? How can he train so many around to ape the Japanese? Or does he simply migrate and miss out on what has been close to him all his life?
Unless a professional spreads excellence he has to only struggle alone if he is happy by his contribution in service. I am at the end of (60 years) somewhat successful career.
This is all very true, but what if you are unsure about the passion?
fantastic post. It made me reflect on my last 10 years and see where the issues are. Did not realise that had moved to Phase 4 and need to correct this quickly.
Thanks once again & you have a new fan now :)
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I’m sure I have come upon Mr. McKeown keen essays before, but was recently reminded/recommended to read The Number One Mistake Capable People Make by a LinkedIn connection, Maria Fafard.
Hi Greg, thanks for reaching out to me on LinkedIn. I have been reading your articles and I must say you are not only a fantastic writer, you also introduced me to new perspectives which wouldn’t have otherwise cross my mind! Cheers!
Hi Greg, Good stuff. I can definitely relate as an MBA professor, asked to create an arts mgt. program…turned international development/ African education professional. (whew – I feel like a lunatic describing a career path that albeit makes sense!)
It makes me wonder, if in your review of this phenomenon of not saying no, did you uncover a gender differential? It would be my hunch that women, particularly successful women climbing a formerly male-dominated career track, might worry that saying “no” equates to weakness, or not being available or a “team player.”
Second, the distinctiveness point is well-taken. I think people generally fail to appreciate the value their distinctiveness holds, and trade it for ‘commodity’ mindset. If you take a look at the volatility of commodity markets compared to distinctive products (even in agricultural products) the pattern is pure volatility, compared to distinctive products which show a steady increase. Perhaps helping students to better understand the value of distinctiveness is something we should be doing as mentors….just a thought.