Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Crossing the Creek

I am speaking to college students tomorrow on career planning.  It has caused me to reflect on some of my experiences and reading on the subject as I have prepared my remarks for the students.

One of the better books that I have read on the subject was written over 20 years ago - The Executive Odyssey by Frederick G. Harmon.   I recommend it for anyone who is interested in their personal and career growth.  It provides some good principles to apply to achieve your career goals and aspirations.  Harmon includes a number of real-life examples to demonstrate the key points.

I still remember two lessons from the book even though I read it more than two decades ago.

First, most careers paths are not vertical.  Advancement most often is much like crossing a creek by navigating from one rock to another.  You rarely will find the way across the water by making a straight beeline ( I couldn't resist using that word) from one bank to the other.  The rocks may be lined up for you but the distance between them may require you to make a leap you cannot make.  You may end up all wet, or worse, drown in making the attempt.

The best path is when you can always have one foot on the previous rock and can get the other foot on the next rock.  You always stay focused on the big goal (crossing the river) but you understand that the best path to success may mean you have to move laterally or obliquely to put yourself in a better position to advance to the ultimate objective.

The other lesson I remember from the book is the example about the career of Dwight Eisenhower.  Most know him as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War II or as the 34th President of the United States.  However, his career was anything but a straight shot to the top.  He spent a long time crossing the creek.

Eisenhower graduated from West Point barely in the top half of his class in 1915.  He never saw combat in World War I.  His career was considered undistinguished for the most part over the next 25 years.  He served as a major for 16 years.  He was still a colonel less than three months before Pearl Harbor.  However, two years after Pearl Harbor he was a 5-Star General.  How did that happen?

His ultimate success was built on a decision he made soon after graduating from West Point.  That decision was to perform every duty given to him by the Army to the best of his ability no matter what the nature of the duty.  He carried out his duties in a manner designed to make every boss sorry to see him leave.  He carried out all the details of the job but also combined it with a wide and sweeping knowledge of his chosen field.  At each post he increased his depth and breadth of experience-armor, organization, planning, logistics, strategy and building alliances.  Each position may not have meant much in isolation.  However, he was building a perfect combination of skills that were needed in an undertaking like leading the Allies in defeating Nazi Germany.

When Eisenhower moved to the top of the chain of command so quickly after the outbreak of WWII many said he was lucky.  They said he was just in the right place at the right time.  However, as my old high school basketball coach used to say, luck is when preparation meets opportunity.  Eisenhower spent years preparing by channeling his energy through a complete act in everything he did.   His path across the creek was anything but direct.  However, there were 40 other Generals in WWII from the West Point Class of 1915 and they all ended up are serving under Eisenhower.

Some other principles from The Executive Odyssey.

  • Aspiration releases energy; the more deeply felt the aspiration, the higher the energy.
  • Success expands through psychological effort; the more dedicated that effort, the more significant the success.
  • While survival depends on strengths, success is built on overcoming weaknesses.
  • Mastery of any environment begins with concentrating on essentials and applying appropriate rules.
  • Values determine the direction of all success.

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