Observe Careers Carefully

Want to be the next vice president and GM? Look to the current vice president, and take notes about what makes her a success.

Work is the learning laboratory for how to improve your career. All around you are positive and negative examples that you can observe and learn from. The key is to do your work while studying other people and determining what makes one person a success and another person a failure. Forget their titles. Study how decisions and behaviors improve or weaken a person’s career.

In the spring of 1998, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates sat down to answer questions from students at the University of Washington. It was one of the most effective interviews I’ve ever seen. During that interview, Buffett shared some of his ideas on how to be successful. He suggested to the students that they write down the names of the three people they admired the most and why they admired them. He then encouraged them to spend as much time as possible doing the things they admired in those people. He then told the students to write down the names of three people that they absolutely detested and why they couldn’t stand being around them. He then encouraged them to avoid doing the things they did not admire in other people.

This is practical and powerful advice if you want to create a career that generates $100,000 or more a year. Become a student of the nuances that create successful and unsuccessful careers. It really does not matter what job the person has. Instead of focusing on the person’s label, step back and observe his or her performance. If you think the person does a great job, then work to isolate the three or four most important keys to that person’s success. If you think the person does a poor job, really search for the attitudes and/or actions that ruin the person’s chances for success.

Keep a list of lessons learned

I used to coach an executive who was the regional senior director of operations for a region within McDonald’s Corp. who had his eyes set on his next promotion – vice president and general manager of a region, the highest ranking job in McDonald’s regional hierarchy. Before he could join them, he studied them. He studied the GMs that he met, and he made a list of ideas on what it would take to eventually become a successful regional GM. He kept that list with him everywhere he went, and added to it whenever he came across a new insight. After serving as a very successful GM in two different regions for a period of nine years, he was promoted twice and eventually became the Chief Restaurant Officer of the entire U.S. business. His career education was constant and on-going. He always searched for ways to get better at what he did.

One of his keys to success: He became a student of the position that he eventually wanted to earn. He then applied the ideas that he gathered, which made him a “very experienced” GM even when he was first starting out.

If you find yourself aspiring to a certain career track, consider those who trekked it before you.

  • What position do you want?
  • Who is in that position right now?
  • What do these people do that makes them successful, and what do they do that keeps them from being successful?

Maintain a running list of your answers. Then periodically review your list and determine how and when you can apply the ideas on the sheet to improve your performance. Make your career an ongoing learning laboratory.

Uncover your own wisdom

Of all the people you can observe and learn from, one of the most important is your past self. Step back and reflect on your career when you were at different ages. Picture yourself doing whatever it was you were doing at that age. Once that personal video pops up, identify what you did at that age that made you successful and what you did that got in the way of your potential success.

These insights from your past are like a lifetime supply of career gold nuggets. You can turn to them as often as you want. You can simply fill in this statement, “When I was that age I was <fill in the job you were doing>. What made me successful at that time was doing ____. What kept me from becoming more of a success was when I did _____.

Your wisdom is there for the taking, but you do have to take the time to gather it. Pausing to think is a great way to internalize what happened and convert it into a driver for greater success in the future.

See your strengths

While you’re in an observant state of mind, let me add one more homework assignment to your list: Have an out-of-body experience, and look at yourself. What do you do well? That’s no small question. Take some time to identify what it is that you do well, whether it’s in your work, community or home life. Then identify what your passions are. This may not be intuitive, so be patient. Maybe as you look at different areas of your life you can only write down one or two good things. That’s fine. Start the list and add to it as you uncover another one of your strengths or passions.

In his 1966 book, “The Effective Executive,” Peter Drucker writes, “All in all, the effective executive tries to be himself; he does not pretend to be someone else. He looks at his own performance and at his own results and tries to discern a pattern. ‘What are the things,’ he asks, ‘that I seem to be able to do with relative ease, while they come rather hard to other people?’…Making strength productive is as much an attitude as it is a practice. But it can be improved with practice.”

The advice remains true today. Observe yourself. Identify what you do well and what you are passionate about. Then spend the vast majority of your time using your strengths and passions to improve the most important desired results for your organization.

David Ogilvy, in his book, “Confessions of an Advertising Man,” writes, “Creative people are especially observant, and they value accurate observation (telling themselves the truth) more than other people do.” David Ogilvy built one of the most successful advertising agencies in history. As you look to build your career, value accurate observation; tell yourself the truth about what will make you successful; and then work to apply your insights, your wisdom, your passions and your strengths to build the career you want.