Greatness In Times of Career Hardship — and Career Prosperity

Professionals are often very diligent about their career when they don’t have a job, but the fact is they should be just as diligent when employed.

Assume success.

Assume that all of your hard work over all these years has suddenly paid off in the form of you achieving what you’ve always wanted. You now have the income, title, responsibilities, authority, scope of influence, skills, reputation, clients, and flow of opportunities that you’ve always dreamed of having.

Now the real work begins.

Over the past hundred years, Americans have demonstrated that they are very good at dealing with bad times — and very bad at dealing with good times.

After the rise in home prices and in the stock market from 2003-2006, we came into a prolonged recession from December 2007 through today. Now we’re seeing Americans become good at sacrifice, commitment and teamwork again.

But why are we so bad at handling good times in ways that could allow us continually to improve our results? Why are we so often are own worst enemies when we are in the best position to generate long-term sustainable success? And what lessons can be learned from history that an individual can apply in his or her own career to sustain greatness when success finally arrives?

Lesson #1:
Remember there ain’t no free lunch, no silver bullets and no secret fountains of money.

During good times, Americans have consistently thought they had it all figured out. Somehow we forget that we’ve had short-term success in the past that didn’t work out very well.

In the mid-1920s, mid-1980s, late 1990s and mid-2000s, many Americans thought buying stocks would automatically move them up the economic ladder. The greatest piece of business advice I’ve ever learned is “there ain’t no free lunch.” In the late 1890s people thought finding gold in Alaska was the key and in the late 1990s people thought buying dot-com “gold” was the answer.

Don’t ever assume that a stock purchase, a good relationship with your boss, a degree from the “right” university or employment at a “great” company will ensure your long-term greatness. It won’t.

The stock market collapses in 1929, 1987, 2000 and 2008 have shown what goes up doesn’t necessarily always continue to go up. Many executives in the financial industry from 2003-2007 thought they had figured out a way to turn bad loans into great products until one day they found out that wasn’t a secret fountain of money either.

When your great day of success shows up, don’t waste any energy thinking you have it all figured out. Keep striving to get better. Success just means you have a better foundation to work off of for the future. It doesn’t mean you have a guaranteed incredible future.

Lesson #2:
Great performance creates great value, and poor performance ruins it.

Jason Jennings has written a tremendous new book called, “Hit The Ground Running: A Manual for New Leaders” (Portfolio, 2009). I personally subtitled it: “A Manual for Leaders Who Aspire for Greatness” because I believe any executive or manager in any for-profit or not-for-profit organization would benefit tremendously from this remarkably powerful book. (If you want to read my review of this book, visit my Web site at:

Through a series of extraordinarily stringent filters, Jennings narrowed his list to the nine best-performing American companies in this century. He then personally interviewed the 10 CEOs (one company has co-CEOs) of these companies. What he found re-energized me. These 10 CEOs did, and did not do, some very unusual things.

They were clearly anti-fancy. When they inherited large personal offices, they got rid of the fancy furniture, brought in conference tables and whiteboards, and created working functional spaces for themselves and their team members. One took out his private bathroom and asked why in the world he would need his own bathroom.

They were anti-buzzwords. None of them talked about six-month strategic development processes, stated lofty and complicated visions, spent insane amounts of money for big-name consulting firms to tell them what to do, or hung posters with catchy themes at every one of their business locations.

They talked with employees, board members, managers and past CEOs.These high-performing CEOs are very down-to-earth individuals. Consistently, they said they didn’t have all the answers and wanted to get to know and learn from as many people connected with their organizations as they could. They were not acting like the proverbial superhero action figures ready to save people from peril. They were genuine individuals who simply wanted to learn anything they could to help their companies succeed in the short and long terms.

The single biggest takeaway for me from the very best CEOs and their companies is that they maintained a singular focus on improving the performance they felt would benefit their customers the most in terms of creating real value for them.

If you want to be able to strengthen your mantle for greatness, the absolute key is always to improve your performance, which is the actual creation of value that other people will want to use and will benefit from in a meaningful way. If you develop the ability always to do exactly that in good economic and bad economic times, you will be able to handle success and maintain the capacity for greatness over the long term.

Lesson #3:
Avoid the “So what are you up to lately?” dilemma.

I think this is the most subtle and pervasive problem in the history of U.S. economics. No matter how successful a company or an individual becomes, the first question asked of him or her by friends and family is, “So what are you up to lately?” In other words, “What have you achieved lately, what is your salary, what new homes are you buying, what vacation homes are you building, and where is the next fancy resort you’re going to visit?” The problem isn’t with the question or the questioners. The problem is the distraction that individuals allow it to create.

Whatever happened to the tortoise beating the hare?

I encourage you to improve, create greater value, achieve some success and then repeat that formula consistently over the entire period of your working life. It is what made you successful once, and it is what will consistently make you successful in the future. Just don’t force the future into today’s envelope. Be patient and let your improvements generate greater success when the time is right.

Lesson #4:
Values matter, and so do lack of values.

Nothing has ever destroyed future greatness faster than a breakdown in personal values. Values are beliefs that determine behaviors. You get to choose six. What six values do you want to guide your behaviors? Ok, if you really want, you can choose eight, but that’s it. Here are mine: integrity, curiosity, friendliness, open-mindedness, innovation, and empathy. Ok, two more: tenacity and accountability. That’s it.

If you lie about little things, you’ll lie about big things. If you’ll take more money than your company can realistically afford to pay you just because you can get away with it, you’ve shown where your priorities are for the long term. Don’t reward yourself today based on dreams for tomorrow. If you’re honest in little things, you will be in big things as well. Values have a way of repeating themselves.

Be ready for success. It can happen at any moment.