There are a ton of things you can do to help your career. You can research career pathways in your chosen field, you can get lots of education and certifications. You can stalk someone’s LinkedIn and see in detail the career trajectory. These options are a great way to gain skills and get jobs, especially the high demand jobs at the individual contributor level. If you push through to an MD, guess what, you will have medical recruiters calling non-stop. Ditto with certain types of computer science skills. It doesn’t have to be that high end, if you are really good at industrial maintenance you’ll get a ton of offers from pretty much any factory right now. The thing with all these super high demand positions is that they are for, as I said, individual contributors. But what about the career trajectory of managers who got that ticket on the space elevator? How did they do it? I’ve always had a desire to understand the decision making process behind it, therefore I am always looking for opportunities to listen to leaders discuss their ascendance. It was recently that I realized that sometimes they don’t even know.
The first time I ran into this question was several years ago when I listened to an an audio book by Michael Eisner. He’s the executive credited for saving Disney and setting it on it’s course to be the media powerhouse it is today. The book was mostly about his time as an executive in Hollywood and of Disney but he covered his career growth very quickly. The way he described it, it seemed he went to CEO almost directly from school. I don’t remember the actual career ascendance but I do remember thinking.. wait, how exactly did he get there? What decision did he make or what did he do that got him those jobs? Admittedly any thoughts that luck or politics could have been at play didn’t occur to me. It was the part of my life when I thought hard work alone could get me into the C suite.
I recently listened to another interview about career ascendance with a more seasoned ear from my decades in the professional workforce. This one was way more detailed about the career of Goldman Sachs President Harvey Schwartz. He talked about his mentors and his breaks but not about the specifics of why he was picked for each rung up the ladder. When I say specifics, there wasn’t any discussion about the rationale used by the people who made the decisions. The interview definitely had that purple squirrel feel about his career, i.e. the hyper specialization where he got all the pieces he needed to make him the pick, but i’m sure there were others who could have gotten the jobs. There always are others, usually many others. The Schwartz interview reminded me of the earlier one and even though it was more filled with answers than the Eisner interview, it still left me with questions.
I couldn’t help but think that when people are interviewed about their careers they rarely say “I was picked for the big open job because I had X”. They generally say I did this and then I did that and then I did this other thing which grew me into this final thing but they never say what the actual deciding factor was. They never discuss the people who made the decision or exactly why they made the decision. Never are the points that were important in the decision-making process discussed. I think they, the senior VIP’s, don’t discuss this because in many cases they don’t know or they can’t talk about it. Nobody is ever going to go to someone who gets a promotion and say: “You were chosen because the CEO of the company thinks you BS’d the big account well and we want you leading this other business unit because the existing manager didn’t build a team with enough of the same ability to snow the clients”. Nobody’s ever going to say: “You got the job because you met the minimum spec for the job and are a specific color or gender and we don’t have enough of those represented”. It’s these and other uncounted little decisions that aren’t discussed in these interviews. Maybe someone was groomed from when they were in school and daddy called in some favors, so Jr got the job and thankfully was intelligent enough to keep it and grow. It could have been the flip of a coin between two great candidates. Who knows?
The point is there is limited transparency and a fair amount of sensemaking for the actual decisions sometimes even for the people who got the job. There is always the obvious stuff in a pick to get into executive management. The requisition will say there needs to be X years of this type of experience and Y years of this. I don’t want to discount that piece of the puzzle because it’s true in nearly all promotions. Typically you need to have A,B and C or you disqualify yourself out of consideration. But that’s the baseline, there are always tons of people who have it all even in the realm of the purple squirrel. But there are other factors, and those factors aren’t really discussed, or sometimes they can’t be discussed. I know a senior manager who promotes a very specific race, gender, and age significantly more than others.
Is there a way to actually know what the decision making rationale was as you climb the ladder?
Nobody can ever know 100% what the final decision making rational is but I do think it’s possible to develop a sixth sense of why people are chosen. Unfortunately to be really good at it, you already have to be in the realm of decision makers and you need broad experience in those types of decisions. Being a witness from a single corporate culture or a single industry culture will just let you know how that environment promotes, not how every CEO or Senior VP gets chosen across the broader landscape. I’m sure a giant non-profit chooses differently than a tech firm, than an old line manufacturing firm. If you are on a dozen boards of corporations, and have helped choose many high level executives across different industries, then i’m certain that you’d just know why someone was chosen. You don’t even have to be the decision maker. You could be a consultant who helps with CEO and executive searches and after short order you would get it. The key to my question is the words ‘as you climb the ladder’ because If you have never been there, then guess what, the decision making rational can’t be learned. This makes it awfully hard to start the ascendance to true leadership where the majority of your time is decision making.
A while back I talked about open source interviewing, that’s sort of the same thing as this in that there is a need to know what decision makers think about. My rationale for the need for open source interviewing was more aimed at individual contributor jobs. If you ‘over share’ and don’t realize it, then listening to a few decision makers who decided against you complain about your oversharing will help you develop some discipline very quickly. In a fantasy world, hearing exactly why the different CxO’s and VIP’s were chosen over others will help anyone who aspires to that level really figure out what they need to do. It could also get them to a place where they realize they aren’t a fit for that level much more quickly than they would otherwise.
There is an analogy in economic development. One big part of ED is selling locations for business that are looking to expand into a new area. The problem is that nothing is ever really known about what happens after the economic developer submits the information or the request for proposal. Some decision maker could choose one city over another city because of something irrational like his kids moved there or because his wife loves a particular type of food offered in the area. Armies of people would bust their respective tails to put their areas best foot forward from several different and equally high quality sites across the southeast, but it was that fact that Ms. Decision maker absolutely adores shrimp and grits which got the plant located at the site near Charleston, NC. The decision maker will never say the final decision was based on his weekly date night in an interview with Wall Street but that type of information would be invaluable to anyone else trying to engage that particular person.
In the end i’m like that economic developer from Birmingham who didn’t know about the importance of having awesome Shrimp and Grits at my local eateries. I don’t know why leadership decisions are made. Listening to interviews about the career ascendence by the VIP’s rarely explain exactly why they were really chosen. In the same way that there is always another city that would be a great location for the business, there is always someone else who has the skills they say were important. There is always someone else who has the ability to do the job. There is always someone else who got great mentoring. Hyper specialization usually means much less competition, not zero competition. When it comes to hiring for senior managers there is a truth that’s like the line from the Highlander films, “there can be only one”. Unfortunately knowing how the guy who got the job was chosen is never as obvious or potentially as entertaining as seeing other guys getting their head cut off.
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