If you think you’ve ‘arrived” you’re in trouble!

I could see it in their demeanor and hear it in their voices as they described their work and personal lives.

I could see it on their resume in their list of education and experiences.

They had “arrived!” They had reached a pinnacle in their career … but their story didn’t have a happy ending.

Earlier in my career I was, for lack of a better term, a “hired gun.” A management consultant conducting leadership assessments for companies being sold, bought or undergoing large-scale transformation. I travelled the globe writing leadership profiles on senior executive talent across a variety of industries.

After conducting hundreds of these I began to notice a pattern. Some of these individuals were continually being offered new opportunities while others were in the fast lane on the road to a career ‘incident.’ They would be laid off, restructured, fired or find that they were in a career ‘no mans land.’ A ‘plateau’ as it were.

And this pattern was occurring regardless if I was in Hong Kong, Germany, the Americas or Africa.

What was happening? These were smart, capable, friendly people? Some had MBAs from the worlds’ most prestigious business schools. All were hardworking.

And when I heard it in the tone of one executives’ voice … I knew in an instant. He had “arrived.” The expertise he was relying on was his masters thesis in innovation for his MBA with a top-notch institution … from 15 years before.

Once I started to notice the pattern it was clear. It didn’t matter if they were male or female; from Asia, Europe or the Americas; in their 20s, 30s or 50s. Once they told themselves that they “had arrived,” a process started. Sure enough, 3-5 years later…they would plateau, be fired, laid-off or suffer a significant career set-back.

When their own personal ‘mental switch’ flipped, and that could happen consciously or subconsciously, they came to the conclusion that they had ‘arrived’ and then they stopped investing in their skills and learning. Then the clock started ticking. For some it was after achieving a Bachelors Degree or their first entry level of professional attainment, for many it was an MBA or having achieved the level of Partner or Vice President.

They stopped being curious, they stopped exploring and they stopped experimenting.

As I started to explore this I discovered that it wasn’t a new phenomenon. One of my mentors, Leadership Professor Warren Bennis called it ‘reinvention.’ He said,

“People who cannot invent and reinvent themselves must be content with borrowed postures, secondhand ideas, fitting in instead of standing out.”

In the tech world we call this necessity to continuously invent and re-invent yourself over your career ‘disrupting your own platform.’ But, it is the same thing.

I’ve seen twenty-somethings with the career trajectory of a cannonball and 50-somethings taking off like a rocket with new skills and expertise.

On one consulting project they hired me to work with a senior ‘hi-potential’ leader. This man was destined for the top job, or so it seemed. The problem was that in his mind he was ‘fully evolved’ and didn’t need any improvement or changes in his approach. He had ‘arrived.’

On this same project we also worked with some of the other senior leaders for the client. One of his peers, someone who wasn’t even on the corporate ‘hipo’ radar at the time, was continually learning and developing himself. Working hard not only to amplify his strengths but also to correct any weakness and learn as much as he could. I’ve never met an executive who took his own learning and development so seriously.

Eight years onward, this ‘also ran’ was successful in the top job and the ‘high potential’ was, as they said in a corporate news release, ‘spending more time to focus on family and personal endeavours.’

One had ‘arrived’ while the other was ‘reinventing.’

But, it’s not just clocking up more miles on the treadmill of work or professional accomplishments, there are other ways to develop. Another senior leader I worked with took up a competitive sport for the first time in his 50s. He went on to compete in the world’s master’s championships – but it wasn’t his newly developed prowess as an athlete as much as the influence this new learning had on his skills as a leader.

These new ‘learnings’ transferred from one context to another and he went from being an effective senior leader in his own company to becoming a transformative business leader advising his peers around the world. Another proof point that you can channel your outside passions into developing your personal ‘leadership platform.’

Sometimes it is doing what you are already good at and redeploying this in a new, and maybe even more challenging, environment. Years ago, an executive I had the pleasure to work with prided herself on pushing the boundaries as to what a woman was ‘supposed’ to achieve as a leader. Once she had attained a high degree of success in North America, she looked globally and proceeded to work in countries where women weren’t traditionally seen as being able to lead men. Not only did she further develop her platform as an international leadership expert, she also served as a personal and career role model for hundreds of early in career men and women.

As a final example, a good friend of mine announced his retirement from headhunting at 70. Now that he was without the big office and staff he had been accustomed to, he re-invented his approach to work using 21st century technology. The result? He proceeded to have 5 more years of an even busier (and financially profitable) period of his career…doing the exact same profession he ‘retired’ from.

My rule of thumb is based on the hundreds of leadership assessments I have conducted: Once you have told yourself ‘I have arrived’ then 3-5 years later, the likelihood that you will have a career ‘incident’ (ie, plateau, lay-off, fired, passed over for promotion, etc) increases substantially.

As retired US Army General Eric Shinseki so aptly put it,

“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

Ask yourself, ‘when was the last time I significantly added new skills, expertise or perspective?’ If it is 3 or more years ago then, my friend, the clock is ticking….if it is from the last century then the platform is burning!

By the way, in the spirit of openness, this blog represents my latest disruption!

Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.

Illustration courtesy of Flickr CC and Charlotte Claeson

12 thoughts on “If you think you’ve ‘arrived” you’re in trouble!

  1. Hi Bob, great article! It highlights the issue of career transition and how people need to prepare for the future. The examples reminded me of a news story on a famous photographer I saw a few days ago. Robert Doisneau is an iconic photographer but the style he’s know for does not match one of his career experiences – Vogue fashion photographer. There is a new exhibit of his work during this period. In the news story, the photographer choose to leave Vogue after about 3 years because he was getting ‘too comfortable.’ He left the magazine and invented a whole genre of photography – street photography.
    Here is a link about the exhibit – http://www.themalaymailonline.com/features/article/the-vogue-years-shows-another-side-of-robert-doisneaus-photography

  2. So true. It’s hard to look in the mirror sometimes. But one must do it to make sure the reflection is what you want it to be.

  3. Great reiteration of one-powerful-message, hard-hitting examples to support that, and pointers to reflect upon. Your thoughts are a reminder of how agility determines our very survival in a VUCA world! Thanks for sharing!

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