Guest Post: The Executive Mindset

Sam Palmisano, former IBM CEO, spoke at the 2012 Johns Hopkins University Commencement Ceremony and provided advice to graduates planning their career: Think independently, be passionate about something, and go where the learning will be the most intense. Looking to build on Sam Palmisano’s advice, I interviewed four IBM executives to gather their own advice on career advancement.

All of the executives agreed that the most common misconception regarding career advancement is the existence of a magical set of steps that any individual can follow to guarantee becoming an executive.  Each executive had their own unique career path, yet it became immediately apparent that they also shared a similar mindset that directly contributed to their career advancement.  This post compiles the advice, tips, and lessons shared in order to identify an executive mindset that any individual can use to create their own path for career advancement.

  • Focus on your current job responsibilities: Career growth is built on core success, so your primary focus should always be to exceed current expectations – nobody is ever promoted if they have not met their expectations.  Strive to add value each day to make yourself invaluable to your clients and colleagues.  The rewards will follow the results.
  • Think independently & look for ways to contribute: Leaders do not rely on the thoughts of others.  Doing only what is asked of you is not enough.  Opportunities will not find you, but they are ALWAYS around you – you need to be aware of the most important problems facing your client and/or company, recognize the opportunity, and determine a solution.
  • Find ways to say yes: It is very easy to say, “I can’t help right now.”  While you may have to find time to complete the task, saying yes will create another opportunity to develop a stronger relationship and demonstrate your ability to deliver, your dependability, and your commitment to the success of the project.
  • Learn: There is ALWAYS something to learn in whatever you are doing, no matter what it is.  Be a “sponge” for knowledge, information, relationships, and new challenges – you never know when you will need it.
  • Find something that you are passionate about: Those who excel will advance, but you will struggle to excel if you are not passionate.  Find the areas that really excite you that align with the needs of your company, and then grow your expertise in those areas.
  • Build relationships: Don’t just be “heads down” in your work.  It is important to make an effort to build relationships, especially with senior colleagues, who will help you advance your career in two ways:1) The network that you build can be leveraged to connect you to new opportunities that directly align with your interests/passions. 2) Observe their behavior with clients and colleagues and try to learn from them by emulating the good and eliminating the bad.
  • Take ownership of your career: No single piece of advice can guarantee success, but you should research and learn about career path options and professional growth opportunities available to you. It is each practitioner’s responsibility to take ownership of their career.  Nobody will ever tell you how to shape your career.

The advice above portrays a common mindset that exists in all executives, and while there is no way to advance your career overnight, adopting this mindset will allow you to maximize how far you can advance in your career.

*Special thanks to Eric Grorud, Zbynek Krobot, Jim Comfort (note: not the author), and E.J. Matto for their contributions.*

This post was written by: Jimmy Comfort, IBM Business Transformation Consultant


What I’m reading now: Networking

The best networking suggestion I can offer? Always say yes to invitations, even if it’s not clear what you’ll get out of the meeting. I’m not arguing for long, pointless, unstructured conversations with everyone you meet. But many of my most fruitful relationships have resulted from a meeting or call in which I was not entirely sure what would or would not come of the conversation.

Insights from the Career Advancement Tweetchat

Earlier this month, I hosted a tweetchat on the topic of “Career Advancement” where we covered tips for career growth, whose responsibility is it and why it should matter to an organization. Here are some insights from the discussion.

Tips to grow your career:

Tip 1: During the chat we were joined by Travis from, Online Business Degree, who advised, “You have to be proactive in asking for more challenging work so you can grow and learn on the job.” The key word here is: Proactive. As I mentioned in a previous post about taking control of your career, creating the career path that you want is up to you. So be proactive in taking on new responsibilities, seeking out mentors and providing added value to your organization.

Tip 2: Don’t be afraid… to speak up. Part of advancing in your career is knowing your plan and communicating it to others (your boss and beyond!). But in addition to that, you should communicate your opinions as well. If you have a great idea, don’t keep it to yourself. If you think something should be changed, create a plan to change it. It is the people who can effectively communicate their opinions (and subsequent actions) who will stand out from the crowd.

Who owns career advancement?

The short answers: You do. Your boss does. The organization does.

While it is easy to point fingers around the room and wait for someone to take responsibility for career advancement, ultimately it is a shared responsibility. It is up to the employee to create their personal goals, put in the work and seek the resources needed to achieve it. In my own career, I benefited from knowing where I wanted to go and asking questions about how to get there.

But it is also the responsibility of an employee’s boss and organization to foster that growth. As leaders we must provide our employees with the opportunities to learn new things – both through experience and education, to take on new responsibilities, and to become leaders themselves.

Why should an organization care?

It seemed to be an easy consensus in the tweetchat that career advancement is a shared responsibility, and while it is clear what stake an employee has in her own advancement, it may not be as obvious what’s in it for the organization. As consultant, Christine Cushwa, said, “Managers taking interest in career advancement motivates employees and increases performance.” And it is true; employees who feel invested in are more loyal to their organizations. Not only does it help employees along their personal career path, but as Eric Feigenbaum points out in his article on training and motivation, it will create a more talented and educated employee who can better execute his job.

And if improved performance, engagement and retention aren’t reason enough, the organization’s future is another reason why organizations should care about career advancement. The investment you put into your talent today will directly affect the success of your organization tomorrow. Succession planning shouldn’t be a nice to have; it should be an integral part of every organization.

If you enjoy reading about the tweetchat discussions, please join me next month for a tweetchat on Becoming a Leader.

Friday Fast Tip: Actions

The old saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” seems to be especially true when leading an organization. It is great to ask for feedback, to listen to the needs of your people, but if you really want the support of your employees you must also act on their requests and suggestions, which brings up another old saying – “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.”

What I’m Reading Now: Employee engagement is more than a game

Engagement is forged with different tools: trust, loyalty, open communication, clearly-articulated goals and expectations, shared values and well- understood reward systems. It really isn’t about how the office is set up, or the toys gathered to distract restive employees, that build engagement. Turns out, employees engage with employers and brands when they’re treated as humans worthy of respect.

Taking control of your career

There is no other person or entity that has as much stake in your career as you. Creating the career path that you want is up to you. That doesn’t mean that you have to figure it all out yourself, however. Part of carving that path is identifying those resources that will assist you in moving forward. Here are a few tips to help you to have the career that you want.

  • Seek out mentors – Just as you would want to have an experienced guide lead your climb up Mt. Everest, you should seek out a mentor who can help guide your career. A mentor is someone who can help you identify and achieve the steps on your career path. Mentors may last for a few months or for the rest of your career, depending on what you hope to achieve from the relationship. It is important to point out here, that you are the one shaping the relationship with your mentor. You are the one responsible for its success; and ultimately what you put in is directly related to what you get out. You don’t always have to find a mentor who has personally taken the same career path you hope to take. There are many lessons to learn about careers and achieving personal goals that are not job role specific. So look into your network and find a person who you admire professionally and ask if he or she has the capacity to take you on as a mentee.
  • Know your plan and communicate it – This step may require some brainstorming. Ask yourself, what you hope to be doing in the next year, two years, five years and so on. Write down these goals and the steps needed to achieve them. If you aren’t sure what those steps should be, this is a perfect time to engage your mentor. Once you’ve developed the plan, share it with your manager and get your manager’s feedback as well.
  • Don’t stop at your boss – But don’t limit yourself by sharing this plan with only your manager. Tell your boss’s boss (skip level) and other stakeholders as well. This way as opportunities arise, more people are aware of your interests and goals and may tap you to get involved. For example, let’s say you are interested in developing your writing skills. You’ve identified one way to do this could be to join the communications team. If the team is aware of your interest, the next time they have an opening, they may reach out to you. You will find there are many more opportunities out there for the people who actively pursue them.
  • Ask to help – Opportunities may also arise in unexpected ways. You could join a tiger team and meet someone who is working on a project you are interested in, so ask your manager how you can get involved with activities beyond your day-to-day job. This is beneficial in several ways: 1) It shows your manager you are willing to take on additional responsibility. 2) It provides the organization with needed help. 3) It expands your personal network thus opening you to more opportunities. 4) And ultimately, you may discover a new area of interest that you were unaware of before.

It is possible to leave your career to chance, to let others guide it (and they will) and see where it takes you. But that path will be to the benefit of those choosing it and not necessarily to you. If you want a career that is personally fulfilling, then you must take responsibility for developing it. Your network will play an integral role in achieving your goals – so find a mentor, determine your plan, communicate it widely and start getting involved. And while your career path will still lead you to unexpected places, it’s much more likely that these will be the places that make your career even more rewarding.