About this time last year, I wrote a column about lessons I learn from my dogs—especially my old and wise Labrador, Cole. On a recent hike, I noticed my old guy mostly stuck to the gravel path while my young lab, Gideon, chased anything and everything that moved, e.g., horses, deer, wild turkeys, squirrels, small birds. Although he is 10 years younger than my old lab, at the end of that hour he was completely worn out while my old guy Cole barely panted. It got me thinking how easy it is to get distracted by “bright, shiny objects,” how hard it is to stay on our chosen path in life and career and what that means for us later.
Many years ago Bob and I coached two different executives, both with strikingly similar life stories. Both were raised in small town USA. You know the town. Everyone knows everyone and if you catch the flu, your neighbors mow your lawn, grocery shop and clean your house for you. Both candidates were very smart and between college and business school on the East Coast, received a great education. Right after graduation, they both worked for large corporations where they were respected, liked and slated to become important corporate leaders by the age of 30. When we met them, they were both in their mid-50’s and neither liked working for large companies. Both shared that when they were younger, their goal was to own and operate their own businesses and act as their own boss. But this is where the similarities stopped.
Jack’s goal to own a business was motivated by his desire to contribute to his small hometown’s economy, employ a lot of people and offer them a chance to make a good living. This was not going to happen working for a Fortune 100 company. When we met him, he shared how challenging it was to focus on his goal and how often distractions by the bright, shiny objects corporate America offers talented, well-connected and hardworking people, nearly led him astray. As a bright and talented leader, he was offered high paying, prestigious positions through the years, e.g., CEO positions, teaching at top colleges, leading think-tanks, even running for political office. All of which would steer him off his path and away from his goal.
In the end, he indeed left his big company and built a business in the town he grew up in. By the time he turned over the business to his sons, he employed 200 of his family, friends and neighbors. He got through the difficulties starting out – in debt for two years and then breaking even for another three years before things turned around – because his goal was essential to his happiness. It gave his life clarity and made the day-to-day meaningful. By the time we interviewed him, he was by all accounts very successful.
David also talked about how hard it had been to stay on his path of becoming his own boss. In fact, it had been so hard that he fell prey to distractions along the way. While never entirely at peace with his choice of careers, he took the first promotion—and additional income—and never looked back. He got married. And although he still wasn’t happy in his work, he received another promotion and a transfer. He had his first child. Then came another promotion and another move. He had his second child. Then came another promotion and a move out of the country. Still at odds with his career, his kids needed money for college, so he stayed and earned another promotion. By the time he realized how unhappy he was, he had been at the company for 25 years. By all accounts, he too was also very successful.
We asked him why he wanted to leave his company now. He told us he was ashamed to say he should have done so years ago. He told us he wore himself out chasing promotions and now he wanted control of his life and to stop letting the corporation dictate his moves. He let go the dream of being a business owner because, when he was young, he thought it was all about making more money when running your own business. He made good money, so why go to the trouble? He hadn’t thought through the why beyond the surface.
You Need Clarity
Everyone tells young leaders it’s important to set goals—and it is. A plan helps you stay on track. But when you are also clear on the whys of your long-term goals, the decision of whether or not to chase something bright and shiny becomes easy. Will this move get me closer to my long-term goal? If not, then a “no” is obvious. To some people, Jack may look like Gideon, not sticking to his career path – but he was focused on a different path, to be a business owner. David may have seemed like Cole, nose down staying in a straight line, but he lost sight of his true goal, to be his own boss.
For my pups this was only one walk with many more to come. Their goals are simple; food, routine, security, and affection. Your career is a long and important walk and typically you only get to do it once. As you plan your future, think about the advantages of being like my old hand, Cole; keeping your head down and focusing on getting to what smells like home.
Robyn Porterfield is managing principal of Dallas-based Rose Porterfield Group. She consults to executive teams in a wide range of business areas dealing with people at work.