What Price Career Myopia?

What Price Career Myopia?

by Alan N. Schoonmaker, Ph.D

For graduating MBAs, their first job holds promise of challenging responsibilities and, hopefully, attractive rewards for deft application of their management talents. But job No. 1 is only the “kick off.” For the excitement to last, the graduates’ focus should reach well beyond their first position. Career planning is not an exercise to postpone.

VIRTUALLY all of your MBA training has been designed to help you do your job well and increase your value to an organization. You have been taught the basic principles of marketing, finance, corporate planning, communication, and supervision. Judging by the high demand for MBA’s, most of you can successfully apply these principles.

This article deals with a very different topic, one which was largely overlooked in graduate school—how to get the most out of your career, how to control and get what you want from it. It is concerned with the rewards you get from an organization—not the contributions you make to it.

Nearly all writers and professors of management have confused these two issues. They have assumed that the only way to succeed is to do your job well, that virtue is always rewarded, and sin is always punished. But the most casual examination of organizations should convince you that job performance and career advancement are not perfectly correlated.

Some people do advance on merit, but others do not. Some do their jobs superbly, but do not get ahead, while others contribute little, but are highly rewarded Since there are differences between performance and rewards, the only question we shall consider here is: How can you get the most rewards and personal satisfaction out of your career?

There are several steps which seem to be valuable. Realize that some conflict is inevitable between your goals and your organization’s. To control your own career, you must recognize these conflicts. If you don’t recognize them, you obviously can’t work for your own interests.

Many people erroneously assume that there are no real conflicts between themselves and their organization, that problems and apparent conflicts are caused by poor communication and lack of understanding. Unfortunately, even with perfect communication and understanding, some conflicts are inevitable.

Some organizational needs are simply incompatible with your needs and goals. You want independence, but the organization needs control. You want variety and interesting work, but the organization needs standardization and routine. You want more money, but the organization needs low costs. You want to advance your career in certain directions, but the organization has tasks that have to be done and jobs that have to be filled.

These and other conflicts are inevitable, and you must be able to recognize them. On the other hand, seeing conflicts where none exist, or overemphasizing the conflicts that do exist can be very destructive. You will be seen as a troublemaker or an obstructionist and have little chance for success. You must distinguish between real conflicts which are important to you and apparent conflicts or conflicts which are insignificant. And you obviously cannot make these distinctions without a clear understanding of your own goals and the demands of your organization.

Recognize your superiors’ indifference to your career ambitions. In addition to recognizing conflicts between you and your organization, you must realize that your superiors are concerned with their own careers and organizations, not with your career ambitions. You are a means to an end for them, not an end in yourself. Your ambitions and career are important to them only to the degree that they influence their careers and organizations. They are not opposed to your ambitions; they are simply indifferent to them.

Despite the obvious truth of the statements made about goal conflicts and superiors’ indifference, some of you do not really believe them. You do not want to accept the harsh reality that you are alone, that there are inevitable and inescapable conflicts between you and your organization, that your superiors do not really care about you. You want to ignore conflicts and emphasize harmony; you want to believe that they do care, that they do have great things planned for you, that your career ambitions are important to them. You may be in for some rude shocks.

In my consulting work I have seen many people who were fired or did not get a raise or promotion they expected. Some of them were disillusioned and shattered. They could not believe this could happen to them after all they had done for the organization, after all their years of loyal service. And they were totally unprepared to start someplace else: They had no idea about how to approach the job market, no idea of their value to another organization, and frequently no faith or confidence in themselves or anyone else.

You can avoid this experience by facing the facts now, before it is too late. If you accept the facts about conflict and your superiors’ indifference, you can be more independent and resist their attempts to manipulate you. You can see through their vague promises about the future and can ask for specifics. You can listen to the management recruiters without guilt or shame. You can bargain hard for raises and promotions. That is, you can act freely and in good conscience for your own interests.

Goal Analysis

Analyze your own goals. An important step in your career strategy must be carefully and thoroughly analyzing your own goals. You obviously must decide what you want from your career before you can take any reasonable action toward getting it.

Unfortunately, some of you have not analyzed your real goals. You have either ignored the question or accepted the goals that other people say you should have. Perhaps your spouse or your parents or your associates or some image or ideal are pushing you toward goals which are not really important to you.

You may be trapped by a success ethic you think you should have, but do not really feel. You think you should want to get ahead, make more money, try for the top. For some people these are realistic goals, but not for everyone. If you honestly do not want these goals, if you are not really that ambitious, if your family means more to you than your job, if money is not that important to you, you will be a lot happier if you honestly admit it. If you strive for goals you do not really want, you will just waste your life.

Understanding your own goals is certainly not easy, but it can be done. The best way is to discuss them with someone else, preferably someone with professional training: a psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychologically trained member of the clergy. If you’re uncomfortable about discussing your goals with a professional, do it with a friend or relative who is a good listener.

Another possibility is to use a technique which has been helpful in my consulting. We use a form, but the basic technique requires only a pencil, paper, and patience. Ask yourself a large number of fairly specific questions, write down both questions and answers, study them for patterns, and then answer the “key questions.” Do not be embarrassed or surprised if your answers appear unreasonable or inconsistent. Very few people are completely sure of what they want to do with their careers. A few of the questions you should ask yourself are:

  • If you could have any job you wanted, what job would you take?
  • How important is making a lot of money to you?
  • How much income do you want?
  • How much income does your spouse want?
  • Do you really want to do executive work (not lead an executive’s life)? That is, do you want to do things by motivating, directing, and controlling other people or would you prefer a job where you worked on your own or advised people?
  • In what size firm would you prefer to work?
  • Would you rather work in a company where most decisions are made by individuals or by committees?
  • Would you rather have a secure job or one in which you could “sink or swim”?
  • Would you rather work independently in an unstructured situation or have clear guide lines from above?
  • Where do you want to work and live?
  • Are you willing to drop old friends as you go upward?
  • How many hours a week do you want to work?
  • Are you willing to spend a lot of time away from home on company travel?
  • Are you willing to relocate whenever or wherever your company directs?

There are many factors to be considered for any career choice (duties, title, income, superiors, location, firm, company travel). List the factors that are important to you and rank them in order of importance:

  • What do you really want to do with your career?
  • What are you going to do?

Personal Analysis

Analyze your assets and liabilities: You would not forecast your firm’s future without first clearly analyzing its assets and liabilities. Your career strategy should be based on the same type of analysis. You must understand the assets you have to work with and the liabilities you must overcome or compensate for.

Unfortunately, analyzing your assets and liabilities is much more difficult than analyzing those of a business. Businesses have standardized accounting procedures and assets and liabilities can be compared by stating them in dollar terms. Your assets are hard to measure and usually cannot be compared to one another. We don’t know the exact value of an MBA, high intelligence, a pleasing personality, and so forth.

Although you cannot exactly assess your assets and liabilities, you can make a more accurate approximation than you have now by using the same general technique you used to analyze your goals: With or without help from another person ask yourself a large number of fairly specific questions, write down the answers, and then sort your assets and liabilities into two columns, Assets and Liabilities.

In answering these questions compare yourself to the people with whom you are competing for jobs, raises, and promotions, not with the general public (you don’t compete with them any more). Ask questions such as:

  • How intelligent are you?
  • How hard do you work?
  • How good are you at company politics?
  • How persistent are you?
  • How good a supervisor are you?
  • How broad is your experience?
  • How much demand is there for your talent and experience?
  • How does your past success compare with your competitors’?
  • How good are your relationships with your superiors?
  • How well do you get along with your co-workers?
  • Do you have any unusual skills or knowledge?

Opportunity Analysis

Analyze your opportunities. Normally the word, “opportunity,” refers primarily or entirely to your chances for advancement, but here we shall use it to refer to the chances to reach your goals, regardless of what these goals may be. If you want to move into top management, “opportunity” refers to your chances of doing so. If you want a lower pressure job, or one with more satisfying work, more regular hours, or less company travel, “opportunity” refers to your chances for reaching these goals.

Analyze your real opportunities as cold-bloodedly as possible. Determine what opportunities you really have to reach your self-defined goals in your current firm. You will have trouble making this analysis because most firms are dishonest about the opportunities they offer. They deliberately create false expectations to attract and hold people.

Fortunately, there are other sources of information than personnel managers and your supervisors (surveys of incomes for occupational groups, published salaries of top managers, management consultants, trade journals, associates, people who have left your firm, friends in other companies). Using these other sources of information and the usual technique can result in a much clearer understanding of your opportunities than you have now.

You need to understand the growth, profitability, and opportunities in your firm and industry, and the possibilities of your present job and other jobs to which you can transfer. Ask questions such as:

  • How rapidly is your industry growing?
  • How profitable is your industry compared to other industries?
  • How well does your industry pay compared to other industries?
  • How does your firm’s growth rate compare to the industry’s?
  • How do your company’s profits compare to the industry average?
  • How well does your company pay?
  • How much agreement is there between your goals and values and official and unofficial company policies and practices?
  • How highly is your unit valued by the top management of your company?
  • How many people have moved upward from your unit or your present job to higher management?
  • Is your boss promotable?
  • Do your superiors regard you as promotable?
  • How many important people do you normally contact at your job?
  • How much has your income increased since you joined the firm?
  • How many real promotions have you had?
  • How high do you think you have a reasonable chance of going in your firm?

This type of question can help you think in an orderly, organized way about the factors you have to consider before you can intelligently answer the following key questions:

  • Should you stay in your present job?
  • Should you look for another job with your current firm?
  • Should you look for a job in another firm?
  • Which firms and/or industries should you consider?

Political Analysis

Learn the rules of company politics. To many people “politics” is an unpleasant term which refers to various kinds of undesirable behavior—currying favor with the boss, backstabbing, getting ahead without working. It may mean these things to some people, but it has a more general meaning: It refers to the distribution of power.

If we use the term in this sense, it becomes obvious that politics is unavoidable. Since power exists in every group or organization, politics must necessarily exist in every firm. You can get away from politics only by becoming a hermit. As long as you live and work in groups and organizations politics will influence your career—whether you like it or not!

Politics is particularly important for an MBA because you often work at jobs which are very hard to evaluate objectively. Many workers’ performance can be measured by fairly objective criteria such as the number of units produced or sold. Your performance can rarely be measured as accurately and objectively, and the standard “measurement” is usually some form of performance rating (i.e., just an opinion). Since ratings are notoriously subject to bias, your performance record depends on politics.

Politics also obviously influence your chances for promotions and raises. Therefore, whether you like it or not, your career is very dependent upon politics.

The question is not, then, whether you should play politics, but what kind of politics you should play? And to answer this question you must learn who has the power in your firm and how they use it. You should do three things:

  1. Understand the rules of the political game in your firm. There are really several games, different games at different levels, different games for getting ahead and for standing still.
  2. Decide which game you want to play or whether you want to play the games in your firm at all. That is, after you clearly understand the rules of the various political games, you can select the one you prefer, or decide to leave the firm and go someplace where the game is more to your liking.
  3. Play the game that you select more effectively. You can obviously play a game better when you know what the rules are, when you know how points are really scored, when you know how people really get ahead.

Long Range Career Planning

Plan your career. Although these analyses are very time-consuming and even annoying, they make it possible to do something that very few people ever really do. They make it possible for you to plan your career, to decide where you are going and how you are going to get there.

Most people do not plan their careers; they take a job because it looks good, and then inertia takes over. They may stay at the job long after they should have quit, or change jobs prematurely or for irrational reasons, and they rarely have an overall concept of where they are going and how they will get there. They therefore are not really successful (if we define success in terms of satisfying all of their goals, not just their monetary and advancement goals). You can avoid this experience by using these analyses to plan your career.

The first step in planning a career is obviously a long-term goal. Where do you want to end up, ultimately? Do you really want to be a president, now that you know what it costs to be a president?

Once the long-term goal (or goals) is set, you have to establish intermediate-term goals. If you want to be a president, what jobs will you have to take first in order to get there and when do you have to get these jobs? What training do you need? What political connections do you need? Then you have to set up an orderly plan for obtaining the connections and training that you need, and then getting into these stepping stone jobs.

Finally, you need to establish short-term goals to clearly fit into a coherent plan for your entire career. Your next job (if you are now fairly young) should be picked, not only for its salary or its “opportunities for advancement,” but for its chances to provide you with the training and connections, you need to reach your long-term goals. The job which is superficially attractive to you because it has a high salary, or offers the opportunity for rapid advancement, or is located in a desirable place, may be a mistake from the standpoint of your long-term career.

Note that the planning strategy I advocate here is exactly the opposite of the strategy that most people follow (if it can be called a strategy). Most people do not plan further ahead than their next job (if they plan their career at all). They take a job because it looks attractive, and then they see what they can do with it.

Instead, I advocate looking as far into the future as you can and deciding where you want to end up and what steps lead to it. In that way, your life and your career fit into some intelligent plan, and you are in control of your own life.

Progress Analysis

Continuously analyze your progress toward your goals and change your career plan if necessary. Most people would regard the creation of a career plan as the final step in a career strategy. Unfortunately, you cannot make a career plan now and expect it to hold true for an indefinite period of time.

First, conditions change; a job which was originally seen as a stepping stone to bigger things, may turn out to be a dead-end. A firm which looked as if it was going places may run into financial difficulties.

Second, you may not be making as much progress as you expected toward your goals and should reexamine your plans to see whether changes are necessary. In other words, you should continuously record your progress toward your goal to see whether your goals, strategies, or both should be changed.

Although I’ve written as though each step in forming a career strategy is independent and can be dealt with in a fixed order, the process is not nearly that simple. Instead of a simple sequence from goal analysis, to asset and liability analysis, to opportunity analysis, to political analysis, to career planning, to analysis of progress, there is a rather circular process.

As you understand your opportunities and the techniques for reaching your original goals, the goals themselves may change, causing further changes in your opportunities or in the techniques for reaching your goals. The overall goal of this article is not simply to provide the answer to the questions it raised, but to make you more aware of yourself, your goals, your opportunities, and the techniques needed to reach your own goals and live the kind of life you want

Only then can you truly be your own person, making the important decisions about your life rather than passively accepting the decisions of your superiors.

To learn more about you and how other people think, wander around my website.

(This blog is a slightly edited version of an article published in the April, 1968 issue of The MBA.)