Stop Drifting and Start Driving Your Career

The ultimate purpose is to not just focus on the finish line but also understand the best method to get there and not hope or expect, but drive to achieve our career goals in the desired time.

If you are reading this you must have an interest in business, management, leadership and your own role in an organization. As students of these disciplines we constantly seek and find stories of success as defined by academics and executives that we identify as examples of who we want to be and what we want to achieve.

In many cases we follow those leaders of industry, who constantly grace the cover of magazines, are in the headlines of newspapers, and become the center of discussion in academic case studies to gain from their insight and experience. You could say we are obsessed with being amazed by their success stories, as well as documented failures, going through their experiences in an attempt to learn and duplicate their success, and avoid their mistakes in our own lives and careers. We cherish those experiences and they provide us with inspiration as we attempt to climb the corporate ladder and create our own success stories. 

I remember reading about Lee Iacocca and his resurrection of Chrysler. About Roger Enricco and how he took on Coca-Cola as CEO of PepsiCo proclaiming victory in the cola wars. The magic of Michael Eisner in turning Disney into an entertainment power house. The constant feed of articles and books as Bill Gates, a Harvard drop out, built a software empire while his nemesis Steve Jobs took Apple from an icon of personal computing into a lust driven power house of digital music and iconic consumer electronics. For years I obsessed with how Jack Welsh transformed General Electric and used applied statistics to create one of the most successful operational excellence models in recent history based on Motorola born six-sigma. This week I just can’t stop reading about “Steve on leave” and the impact on Apple. 

Over time the reading has provided me with many aha moments, knowledge, and inspiration.  In many cases, some conscious, some unconscious, I have snuck knowledge tidbits and game plan pieces into more than one strategic plan or business presentation. But in the end, is it just that? Pieces of knowledge and information? Pieces of insight? How can we use that information to plan and drive our own career? 

We know who they are and we can ask ourselves how they got there. In fact, we can read most of their biographies and analyze every step of their careers. Studying their thought processes, their decisions, and the outcome can be very useful and insightful. However, in many cases reading through it can be no different than looking at a collection of solved Sudoku or cross-word puzzles. The result can be obvious and understanding how to achieve it is a challenge but executing it and getting it right is a whole different thing. 

We also tend to be selective observers. As we read through case studies and stories of success we tend to focus on the highlights of the story line, the center character and the end-result. But as Boris Groysberg points out in his book Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance, "No one works alone". Boris challenges the notion that outstanding performance is simply the result of a combination of innate talent and good educational preparation. His research points towards additional key factors for success that are typically taken for granted as we admire profiled executives and their success stories. Groysberg identifies outstanding performance as heavily dependent on an organization's culture, resources, networks and colleagues. In the end, tell me where you work and I’ll tell you who you are. 

As an Executive Search Consultant (as we call ourselves), or headhunter (as most people call us), I speak to hundreds of senior executives every year.  By the time we speak most executives are at a point where they are willing to consider a move or are faced with the need to find a new position. Very few have a clear understanding (or are willing to express) which elements of their achievements can be attributed to their specific experience, individual talent, competences and traits, and which are a product of the organization, the culture, their teams and the specific challenges that they faced. It's critical in order to predict future success. 

If you have been on a commercial flight lately, and browsed the in-flight magazine you have probably come across the Chester L. Karras ad promoting his seminars to improve negotiation skills. Prominently at the top it reads "In business as in life, you don't get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate." A bit radical, but somewhat true. While we don't get a chance to negotiate everything and we don't get to choose when it comes to the limitations that life throws our way, we do get to choose where we want to be, and we decide if we want to drift or drive to attempt to get there. 

Most executives will tell you that they do have goals and they do know where they want to be. But when they consider career planning most focus on climbing the ladder. Looking for the next step and working hard to perform where they are to achieve key promotions. Career planning tends to be title driven, and most often than not, little attention is paid to how each position contributes to key factors for future success. Those factors include leadership competencies and skills, that as Boris Groysberg identifies in his work on talent portability, fall into one of two categories: Transferable and Company or firm specific. What you do is just as important as when you do it and where you do it. 

Multiple factors influence the success of a career. Starting with the inevitable, ever changing definition of success. We all have one based on our goals, and those tend to change as we grow, mature, face different challenges and define our needs based on our desired work/life balance. A career plan today will likely be different a year from now. They key is to obtain and maintain a heightened awareness of how every step of this career marathon affects its outcome. 

The ultimate purpose is to not just focus on the finish line but also understand the best method to get there and not hope or expect, but drive to achieve our career goals in the desired time. 

Realted Reading: It's Not You, It's Not Me, It's Just Not Meant To Be


Jose Ruiz is Principal and Executive Search Consultant in Heidrick & Struggles. You can share your views of this article or aything related to manufacturing or executive search

Heidrick & Struggles International, Inc., (Nasdaq:HSII) is the leadership advisory firm providing senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services, including succession planning, executive assessment and development, talent retention management, transition consulting for newly appointed executives, and M&A human capital integration consulting. For almost 60 years, we have focused on quality service and built strong leadership teams through our relationships with clients and individuals worldwide. Today, Heidrick & Struggles’ leadership experts operate from principal business centers in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia Pacific. For more information about Heidrick & Struggles, please visit

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