In Getting Ahead, Less Is Often More

7553-close-up-of-a-black-chess-rook-piece-pvAt an early point in my career, I worked in the manufacturing division of a Fortune 500 company. I did production analyses and planning. In all honesty, I wasn’t too crazy about the gig. I was young and inexperienced and quite intimidated when I had to make my weekly trips from headquarters to the nearby manufacturing plant to review plans, sales trends, and other various updates and issues – current or potential. The plant manager and staff were, well, hardened veterans, very focused on the plant’s efficiency. Anything that impacted that or the plant’s overall performance as a profit center was a big deal.

When I first got the job, I was taking over for someone who had been promoted into a new and different position. I learned that for whatever his strengths were, he certainly had his blind spots as well – as we all do. One of his happened to be forgetting to properly plan for timely production and delivery of component parts that were made overseas in support of the U.S. plant assembly lines. This was not a good thing.

My first planning meeting at the newly assigned plant was fairly straightforward and without incident. This was aided by the fact that my boss, who was himself a pretty tough character but always a supportive mentor for me, was in attendance. However, the following week he said I was on my own. It was my equivalent of getting to jump into the deep end with out a life preserver.

The catch was that the key point on my first solo agenda was to deliver the news (thanks to my predecessor) that key parts from Asia would not be arriving on schedule. The result: one of the most important assembly lines making one of the company’s most popular staple products would have to be shutdown until the situation could be remedied. That was my baptism under fire, with emphasis on the fire. I remember leaving that meeting for the long drive back quite shaken.

I did fix the issue and actually turned out to be pretty good at that job, ultimately winning the grudging respect of plant managers. I never had a meeting again like that first solo event. And, for whatever issues I had with that job, that phase of my career setup a life-changing path.

I thought about that time in my life and career recently when a friend told me a story about a fellow employee who, by all indications bright and talented, recently lost her job. I had met the employee in question a few times socially and was a bit surprised that she was leaving as opposed to progressing up the corporate ladder. What I learned is that, apparently in a quest to get ahead, she undertook the career strategy of lobbying management for – and getting – more projects and responsibilities. I call this the “portfolio strategy” whereby by a bigger portfolio of staff, projects, and/or responsibilities is seen as equating to more clout and, in theory, professional growth. The catch is that the broader responsibilities in this case ultimately became a bit overwhelming, to the point where it was difficult to do all (or possibly any) of the tasks at hand well. Performance issues ensued and led to the inevitable parting of ways.

So, you might ask, how do these two tales – my brief life as a production planner and the “portfolio strategy” story – connect? It’s a simple lesson. In short, I steadfastly believe that the core of getting ahead is by focusing on doing the job at hand well. Better yet, work to continually exceed expectations. Less is more if it means doing better. Quality wins out over quantity over the long run. This is a simple truth, yes, but so often forgotten. And doing less includes minimizing engagement in the black hole of office politics.

There is a lesson for leaders as well. I believe leaders are in the business of making their team members successful. That means playing to their strengths and not rewarding good performance with an overload of responsibilities and/or projects. Recognizing an employee’s limits relative to bandwidth, experience, or training, is critical. It’s about knowing how to challenge a promising employee for the sake of their professional development as opposed to setting them up for failure. Upon reflection, I later realized that’s what my boss did when he sent me to handle that first production meeting on my own.

I did my production planning job well enough such that when I needed my boss’s support to apply for what was then my dream job in another area of the company, he was completely supportive. In fact, he went above and beyond in getting me a key interview with the hiring executive for the desired position over the protestations of the HR director handling the recruitment. I got the interview and the job, which ended putting me on a fast track that changed and, in many ways, defined my career. So, for me, less done well (with a bit of patience and persistence) led to a lot more.

We live and work in a world of business that has changed significantly from those early days of my career. Loyalty on the part of companies or workers is a thing of the past. Digital technology is forcing all of us to constantly upgrade our knowledge and skill base or get left behind. But, you know, some things don’t change, including the rewards that accrue from a job well done.

And the “portfolio strategy,” well, that to me is analogous to a CEO making ill-fated acquisitions to shore up a troubled company only to find those acquisitions don’t strategically fit. Instead, they stretch the company’s human resources and treasury and lead to, corporately speaking, an unhappy ending, much like the fate of the now unemployed employee discussed above. But that’s a topic for another story.