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

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