Don’t worry about your career

25th March 2011 | Posted in Books, How to be a Leader, Management, Organisational Development

One of my favourite books of 2010 was Sarah Bakewell’s ‘How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer’. Equal parts biography, history and philosophy, it distils the one hundred and seven essays of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne into twenty intriguing ideas about ‘how to live a life’. In a series of posts, I’m going to re-interpret them as an answer to the question ‘how to be a leader’.

An-Indian-bodybuilder--009Montaigne wasn’t a manager, ‘though he would be if he was alive now. He was a nobleman, wine-grower and government official living in South West France from 1533 to 1592. His approach to writing was to answer the question posed by twitter ‘What’s happening?’ and, like many tweets, his answers range from the banal to the barmy. He tells us he prefers sex laying down to standing up, he dislikes all fruit other than melon, he’s a lousy singer and he sometimes gets carried away with his own wit. Like some of the better stuff on the internet, ‘though, he also tells us what it feels like to be him when he’s lazy, brave or doubtful. He tells us what’s going on with him, what he thinks about it and, sometimes, what he’s doing about it. This focus on personal reflective observation makes him a pioneer of a style of writing which is completely contemporary and has led some people to describe him as the first blogger. Where he’s very different from management authors and some bloggers is that he writes with no big point to make, no argument to persuade us to accept, no great insight or mission to share but a kind of philosophy or approach emerges through his rambling, observing, questioning, self-analysis. This style, described as ‘writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognise their own humanity’, is what ‘How to Live’ captures so brilliantly and is what has proved so enduring and endearing to generations of readers. The fact that Montaigne’s essays are still in print after 450 years says it all, really.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to take each of Sarah Bakewell’s twenty attempts at Montainge’s answer to the question ‘how to live’ and re-interpret them as an answer to the question ‘how to be a leader’. This might be misguided on my part. Like Montaigne, the only thing I know for sure is that I know nothing. Like him, I might contradict myself or talk nonsense but I will write from my own perspective and experience because I have no other. As he says: you can only walk on your own legs and only sit on your own backside, so here goes:

1. Q: How to be a leader? A: Don’t worry about your career

What Montaigne said was ‘don’t worry about death’, not ‘don’t worry about your career’. After all, he didn’t have a career to worry about. Death’s never cheerful, of course, but it’s easy to see how it would have been a more pressing issue in the Sixteenth Century. As a young man Montaigne suffered a morbid obsession with the end of his life; a feeling prompted, in part, from a classical education. Learning from ancient Greeks and Romans is a good way to make even cheerful people reflect on their mortality and the vigorous Christianity of Renaissance France was keen to focus worshipers on the closeness of the end of their lives on earth. People were just surrounded by more death 450 years ago and as a young man Montaigne was both afflicted by people dying around him and affected by the event each time it happened. His father, younger brother and best friend all died within a few years of one another, some in quite grizzly ways; five of his six children failed to survive him. What changed his outlook on death was nearly experiencing it. Knocked from his horse, vomiting blood, and slipping in and out of consciousness he and his family were convinced that he was about to die but he survived. And in surviving, he came to the view that life, rather than death, was the point. Death would happen all by itself; attention and management to the life that you have is a better obsession than how to make the end of it beautiful, heroic and in line with the expectations of the Church or the great philosophers. For Montaigne, bad things would continue to happen in life but the way to deal with them was to ‘slide over this world a bit lightly and on the surface’, to focus on the experiences of life and take them for what they were; not for what the philosophers might make of them. To go with the flow.

Of course a career is not a life and the end of it certainly isn’t death. I have worked with some people who have behaved as if it is ‘though. I was once recruited to join a business as part of a wave of ‘high potential’ managers. Perhaps unwisely, we were told this at recruitment and we were announced as such to our colleagues once we were hired. Even more unwisely, we were batch-processed through management training and told we were in competition with one another for the next promotion. I wish I could say that I responded to all this with a sort of Montaigne-like going with the flow but of course I didn’t. My focus was on myself. My career. My next promotion. It wasn’t on our job, our team, our customers. The only consolation that I can find now is that I was sophisticated enough to cover my ambition with a fig-leaf of decency while others left theirs naked to the wind. I watched them make themselves ill. I watched them lose faith in themselves or the organisation. I watched us all do the wrong things for the wrong reason.

I had no horse to fall from so my awakening was far less dramatic than Montaigne’s, but I gradually came to the shockingly obvious realisation that the focus of a healthy manager should be on their current job, not their next one. In discussing their careers with others, I sometimes see and hear the same impatience to get on and while I applaud the drive I also question the motive. Although we now live with a kind of career chaos theory where the click of a spreadsheet results in redundancy 10,000 miles away, the resulting insecurity can’t be solved by concentrating on yourself at the expense of others. Management is a team sport and the moment that someone begins to play for themselves is the moment that the team stops working. The end of a ‘career for life’ and the development of portfolio working aren’t an excuse for oneism. It seems to me that the nature of management requires an element of selflessness: putting yourself and your bonus second to the needs of the team or the firm. Of course that might change entirely naturally. You may fall out of love with your employer, you may outgrow your role, you may choose a new direction. My only point is that should be the last place you go in your thinking, not the focus of your working day.

The idea of quest or striving for something is deep in the human psyche. So deep, in fact, that it is one of the seven basic plots for stories in all recorded history and I’m all for it. The only question is whether what you are striving for will really get you what you want. Buddhists talk about noble quests and ignoble quests: ignoble ones being those that focus on impermanence or transience; noble ones being those that seek enlightenment and I like the idea that a manager’s drive should be towards self-knowledge, growth and organisational performance where they are rather than trying to lunge the next step up the career ladder. I have no saffron robe, but I also like the Buddhist idea that the wise look for happiness under their feet while the fool looks for it in the future. Planning to be happy when you have the job which means you can afford the car or house of your dreams is not a substitute for happiness now. The aching envy of thwarted ambition and the desperate urge to impress the boss are two of the most corrosive forces that I’ve seen in people at work and the source of many a cracked integrity and broken marriage. Answering those that argue the banking crisis is evidence that capitalism has stopped working, McKinsey, make a plea for long term thinking. Their view is that Capitalism in 2011 is not broken, just too frantic. What they argue for organisations, I argue for individuals. The noble quest for the twenty-first century manager is to nurture their reputation and relationships and measure their career in decades, not sales quarters or annual salary reviews.

I like the story of the consumer goods business that entrusts the development of a new product to a Rising Star. She assembles her team; works diligently and gains the respect and trust of those around her. After the test market she makes an optimistic interpretation of the data and commits the business to a £2.5m launch plan. The product is flawed, the launch a flop and the FD writes off the £2.5m as a loss. Called to a meeting with her famously demanding boss, Rising Star writes the resignation letter in a trembling hand and slips it into her pocket, convinced that her career is over. Surprisingly, she finds herself drawn into a discussion about her next role and a choice of plum jobs is laid before her. As the meeting draws to a close, she stands to shake hands and confesses that she saw the meeting going quite differently. Her boss catches her eye with a twinkle. ‘Sack you?’ he says, ‘Why would I do that?’. ‘I’ve just invested £2.5m in your development’.

So to the chat rooms cluttered with HR managers asking ‘how do I get a seat on the Board?’, I say ‘be good at your job’. Like Montaigne, I say pay attention to managing the here and now rather than obsess about what happens next. Make your success where you are rather than thinking too hard about your career.

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