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The #1 Career Mistake Capable People Make

December 11, 2012

McKeown, Greg, “The #1 Career Mistake Capable People Make” Posted December 06, 2012, Retrieved December 12/11/2012

I recently reviewed a resume for a friend. She has terrific experience. And yet, as I looked through it there was a problem: 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 a symptom of a deeper problem of being pulled into projects and opportunities she doesn’t feel make the best use of her talents. She ends up being overworked and underutilized. It is easy to see how people end up in this 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: We end up doing lots of projects well but are distracted from what would otherwise be our highest point of contribution* (see more on this in the Harvard Business Review articleThe Disciplined Pursuit of Less). Then, both the company and the employee lose out.

Some of the responsibility for this lies with out-of-touch managers but I also think we need to be more deliberate and discerning in navigating our own careers. In the conversation I mentioned above, we took the time to develop a strategy based more closely with my colleague’s Highest Point of Contribution.

Using a camping metaphor, there is sometimes a tendency for capable people to add additional poles of the same height to the 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 commitments and projects we have add up to a longer pole?

I saw this illustrated recently in one of the more distinctive resumes I had seen in a while. 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/company and a single line description of what he had achieved. Each one sentence said more than ten bullet points in many resumes I have seen. When he was at university his single line described how he had been the student body president, under “teaching” he was teacher of the year and so on.

The point here is not primarily about resumes. The point is we can benefit from evaluating career opportunities through the lens of the question, “Will this become the longest pole in the tent?” If the answer is ‘no’ we may well still choose to do it. But at least we do it with greater awareness.

There is always a tension between specialization and generalization and I am not suggesting we should shift entirely to one side or the other. Being able to do many things is important in many jobs today. Broad understanding also is a must. 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 our highest point of contribution. Failure to be conscientious about this represents the #1 mistake, in frequency, I see capable people make in their careers.

How do we know when too many good things are getting in the way of achieving something truly great in our careers? I look forward to a lively discussion/debate below.

And @gregorymckeown.

A few recent pieces I have written for Harvard Business Review are here.


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