Running a strong race

Why does one person succeed and another fail in the workplace or in life? Quick research shows thousands of books and blogs that offer advice on how to succeed and how not to fail. As someone who has experienced both success and failure, I don’t need to look any further than my own experience to know what works and doesn’t. But before you think I have the secret figured out, knowing and acting on what you know in a consistent way are two utterly different things.

1. When I believe in myself, others believe in me

This is the foundational rule of being influential and successful. People sense confidence in ideas the way dogs smell fear. That confidence comes from a couple of places, 1) belief that you’re doing your best, which means working as hard as you can in a focused way, and, 2) having an innate belief that you’re well-suited to the role. Laziness, lack of focus, or feeling over-your-head are telegraphed to others by the look in our eyes, our speech and our willingness and ability to defend our ideas or work.

As the Director Professional Services for ILOG (now part of IBM) in 2004, I had been on board for a couple of years and knew every individual and customer well. I knew how to position the product and how to relate well with my French and American coworkers. As we went through a period of rapid growth, I worked 14 hour days to keep up with the increasing number of contracts, emails, interviews and challenges. I constantly felt energized knowing I was doing an excellent job for which I was perfectly suited. Confidence and hard work formed a virtuous cycle that created a tornado of positive change.

2. Luck isn’t the largest part of the formula

When we can’t explain what went wrong (or don’t want to accept the evidence), we assign it to fate. It is so much easier to accept failure if we believe that we were on the wrong side of chance or that someone else just happened to be more fortunate. If that were the case, there would constantly be people unexpectedly getting promoted who hadn’t been noticed before, sales people who’ve had mediocre careers suddenly learning how to close large deals quickly, and excellent managers who everyone agrees have now lost effectiveness. This doesn’t happen. The people who are successful have a consistent record of success, and those who aren’t are equally consistent.

A coworker at Nimbus (now part of TIBCO) is one of the quietest people I know when it comes to blowing his own horn. He has great relationships with senior management but also with his peers. He works hard to make sure that everyone around him comes along with his ideas, which is central to his role and key to the future of the business. Someone vying for the same role could easily think that this quiet, unassuming guy has been lucky to have the right friends and to be working in the right offices at the right moments, but nothing came that easily. Watching his career over the past few years, every step was earned and he was not lucky at all when he was one of the first to interact with and impress our acquiring company. His path to promotion was paved with good choices and, just as important, good relationships.

3. What I feel is not always accurate and doesn’t always reflect reality

The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we’re good at reading a situation that impacts us emotionally. We’re not. Stress, fear, and a host of other emotions form a cloud around us that dims our view of what’s really happening. When things go well, we’re convinced we’re geniuses and when things go poorly, we think our careers are headed down hill. The reality usually sits somewhere in between. The challenge is to avoid reacting to those ‘clouded’ perceptions. Those reactions are often risky behaviors with consequences that last long after the cloud lifts.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made is to believe someone doesn’t support what I’m trying to accomplish. In another life, I had a peer that I assumed was unhappy that I was promoted instead. My belief that he was upset led me to be almost apologetic and certainly less decisive around him. My reluctance to make decisions and my walking on eggshells left his group in disarray and lacking leadership until he finally left the company. I only found out later that he left not because of my promotion but instead because of my lack of a strong hand after taking over. Reactions to mistaken reality lead to negative outcomes that can even look like validation of our incorrect initial perceptions. We create an outcome that was once only a perception but is soon a reality.

While these are the lessons life has taught me, often the hard way, they aren’t the kind of thing you master one day and move on. It takes an awareness of our own shortcomings and a good sense of the human condition to filter what’s happening around us. Success comes from this ‘spidey sense’ and those who are most successful without hurting others have this figured out. If you’ve gotten this far, you know what I mean and hopefully, can be more successful than I’ve been at living this out.

What are your thoughts?

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Categories: Workplace Reality

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

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3 Comments on “Running a strong race”

  1. June 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    Great article with a lot of salient points! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Max
    June 18, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    Definitely a morale booster in tough time.

  3. Deanna
    June 22, 2012 at 9:51 am #

    Well (concisely) stated. I appreciate that you’re sharing your personal insights in the mix.

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