Failure amazes me. If it's approached the right way, it can be the best present. Those unpacked realizations of self can do more for our future successes than any shelf of trophies. I hadn't always thought this (a few years ago, I would've chuckled dismissively at such a notion) and then I experienced a decent size serving of sleep-stealing failure first hand. It was real. It was painful. It sucked. Also, it was totally my fault, totally avoidable and should have happened sooner than it did.
December 2010, I'd just finished my MBA and riding high off of multiple job offers when I landed a sweet gig with a consultancy in Chicago. It was one of those jobs that is generally the prize in mind when one pursues an MBA in the first place. I was hired to do a job, begin a career and start a life. Should all go well, in 40 years' time, inheritances for everyone (given of course, you share my last name and my love of Law and Order: Criminal Intent marathons).
On my first day of work, I rode the elevator up to the office and became immediately dumbstruck. Everything amazed me. Everything was perfect. I had an office WITH A DOOR. For weeks after, every time I stood in a mirror, one of several forms of the same ear to ear grin would hijack my entire face.
A year later, I was abruptly (though not surprisingly I can now admit) called into an office where two really good people, my then manager and the Regional Managing Partner, talked me through not just that I was being let go, but the exact reasons why. What was lost on me at the time was just how emotionally taxing those 20 minutes were for the two of them. Few people like breaking that sort of news to anyone, even when it's the right thing to do.
In the grand scheme of things, no one event precipitated my demise. My failure to think beyond myself placed me in positions I should have been smart enough to avoid. Like failing to understand how important a visual it is to be the first one to the office and last to leave when you're the neophyte (if you're not a Subject Matter Expert or Rain Maker, your currency to any team is to make your senior colleagues believe you'll learn fast and work hard).
Until recently, I struggled to put into context everything that went wrong for me that year and what role I played. Reflecting on what I've learned since then, I've come up with 5 broad themes I think sum up that chapter of my life.
Below are my critiques of myself to myself. I wish I'd identified and learned these much sooner, but I'm happy I can recognize and speak to them now.
3 for 1: At the time of my graduation from B-School, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 4.5 potential applicants for one single job posting. Today, 3 for 1.
Setting aside all of the caveats and nuances glossed over in that statistic, it should still serve as a reminder that if you won't respect real opportunities, professional or otherwise, by working hard and competing to prove yourself each and every day, it'll only be a matter of time before someone else is sitting in your seat.
Ownership is the only mindset that matters: Of all the things I did to doom my first gig, nothing was more detrimental than my tacit refusal to take ownership of my budding career. I expected to be handed assignments just like in school. I expected my manager to tend to most of my needs. I expected that I would get direct feedback akin to a grading system. I expected promotions, raises and praise to be a function of time. Most of all, I expected that no one, especially me, have serious expectations for my first year.
The single biggest lesson I've internalized in the time since is that no one owes you a thing. If someone invests in you it's because they believe they will get something of equal or greater value in return.
Do yourself a favor and assess your value to others. From time to time ask yourself questions like:
What do I do best?
How can I leverage what I do best?
Why am I being paid?
What does this person expect of me in return?
What do I need from this person to be successful?
What are they really trying to accomplish?
How can I help this person win?
If you can answer these questions with one sentence, you're off to a great start. The only thing left to do is execute.
5pm deadlines are actually 2pm deadlines: Items due Friday are actually due Thursday. No exceptions. Believe me, no one cares that you have 3 other projects keeping you busy. That's not their issue. You need to be dependable in every sense. Use your resources. The more you take on and accomplish, the more your peers and superiors will want to help you succeed.
Also, don't complain about how hard something is. Doing so plants the seed of doubt that you may not be the right person for the next opportunity. Manage your deadlines with a smooth, James Bond like efficiency and you will be known as the guy/gal to see to get stuff done.
Play nice with the players: Some would like to think it weren't so, but let's ignore that foolishness and note it anyway. Relationships at the office matter. People don't stop being people when they show up for work in the morning, no matter how bottom line driven we all say we are.
Especially when we're new to an organization, we tend to only make friends with those in our peer group and resent the analyst who just conveniently learned the rules to Squash over the weekend. Instead follow that lead and try to make friends up and down the chain and across different operations. Create a net of support.
The people you'll strive to professionally emulate usually tend to be busiest during the workday. Find ways to share in your senior colleagues' outside interests. Those elevator rides back up to the office is where a Managing Associate gets to learn about you and what you're working on.
You should see it as part of your job description to appeal to others' self-interest if you wish to further your own. Seems cynical, I know, but generally speaking, the ones in the office who don't believe they need strategic, mutually beneficial alliances tend to be the office sheep.
You have a personal brand: The first impression someone has when your name comes to mind generally informs how they regard you in earnest. If the first thing colleagues do when your name is brought up is an eye-roll, you've got work to do.
Worse even, as it was in my case, is when your name is brought up and nothing happens. I wasn't memorable. I did little to distinguish myself in any meaningful way. No one knew what projects I worked on or what talents I possessed. My personal brand was that I didn't provide a service people valued in their attempts to reach their goals. That made me disposable.
It takes time and consistent, high level execution to build a reliable and respected personal brand. It also takes only one mishap (or a handful if you're swimming in luck) to ruin that rep. Just like for a Big 10 running back, eyes are everywhere. If you take plays off, people notice. If you don't know the playbook, it's easy to spot. Every time you touch the ball, execute at the highest level. Don't assume the benefit of the doubt.
Your personal brand should suggest that completion and follow through is a given should anyone work with you. There shouldn't be a moment's doubt. You won't get to show people how smart you are and how much good you can do at the next level if they have to question if that spreadsheet file will actually be in their inbox by 5pm.
Today, I consider it a great blessing to have failed at something like work so early on. If I'm lucky enough, I have the next 40 years of my career life ahead of me. I have experienced some bad, self-inflicted wounds and I'd like to think I've learned from them.
Time will be the judge, though. The next time I'm fired, I hope it's because of some crazy, uncontrollable macro trend. I hear the sleep is a little easier to come by in those cases.