Most of my clients and students are seeking to be more effective and fulfilled as professionals or are in the midst of a career transition--or both. A resource to which I've referred people for years is Peter Drucker's brilliant essay Managing Oneself, and it's time to do so again. Here are a few key excerpts and the questions that they inspire in me:
One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence. And yet most people--especially most teachers and most organizations--concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones. Energy, resources, and time should go instead into making a competent person into a star performer.
So ask yourself, What are my strengths? Where could I improve from first-rate performance to excellence? Where should I be focusing my energy, resources and time? Just as important, where am I wasting effort trying to improve from incompetence to mediocrity? (I'm reminded of the value of Seth Godin's concept of strategic quitting.)
[M]ost people, especially highly gifted people, do not really know where they belong until they are well past their mid-twenties. By that time, however, they should know the answers to the three questions: What are my strengths? How do I perform? and, What are my values? And then they can and should decide where they belong.
Or rather, they should be able to decide where they do not belong...
Equally important, knowing the answers to these questions enables a person to say to an opportunity, an offer, or an assignment, "Yes, I will do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way the relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am."
Having assessed your strengths, the next questions to ask are: Under what conditions do I do my best work? What do I require in a work environment to perform at my best? What structures, what relationships, what expectations allow me to deliver excellence? Conversely, what conditions make it more difficult for me to deliver excellence? (I find David Rock's SCARF model a very helpful tool in understanding why some conditions support my own ability to deliver excellence while others have the opposite effect.)
Continuing with Drucker's framework, the logical next question is: What are my values? But what do we really mean by that? The definition of any given "value" is inherently subjective--and even if we arrive at one that works for us, what does it mean to put that value into practice? Here's a process to reach an actionable definition of your values in this context:
- Draw up a list of terms that you define as "values."
- Specify the meaning of each value by telling a story that demonstrates that value in action, preferably an actual event from your own or an observed experience.
- Having illustrated each value this way, ask yourself:
- What intrinsic rewards are the result of this value? In what ways does it fulfill me?
- What extrinsic rewards--what forms of status or compensation--am I willing to sacrifice on behalf of this value?
- How important is this value to my self-identity? How different would my life have to be for me to abandon this value?
- Use the answers to these questions to narrow your original list of terms down to no more than five--and preferably three. The results are your core values.
Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values...
A plan can usually cover no more than 18 months and still be reasonably clear and specific. So the question in most cases should be, Where and how can I achieve results that will make a difference within the next year and a half? The answer must balance several things. First, the results should be hard to achieve--they should require "stretching," to use the current buzzword. But also, they should be within reach. To aim at results that cannot be achieved--or that can be only under the most unlikely circumstances--is not being ambitious, it is being foolish. Second, the results should be meaningful. They should make a difference. Finally, results should be visible and, if at all possible, measurable. From this will come a course of action: what to do, where and how to start, and what goals and deadlines to set.
The answers to your questions above don't constitute a plan, but they're certainly an important form of preparation. Even if don't yet know what you want to do or what opportunities you'll say "Yes" to, these answers should help you begin closing doors and should allow you to start saying "No" to opportunities that aren't aligned with your strengths, your methods of working, or your values.
So now, whether you're seeking to make a transition or simply to be more effective or fulfilled in your current field, look out over the next 18 months, and ask yourself: What can I accomplish in that timeframe? Will these goals require me to truly stretch? Will they truly make a difference? And how will my results be visible and measurable?
As always when it comes to planning, I find comfort in the (reputed) wisdom of Gen. George Patton: "A good plan violently executed today is far and away better than a perfect plan next week."
Thanks to Jim Collins and Jerry Porras's Building Your Company's Vision for their essential framework on identifying core values.
Thanks to Thaler Pekar for her thoughts on The Trouble with Values and the importance of stories.