5 Ways to Build a Phenomenally Successful Career


5 Ways to Build a Phenomenally Successful Career

successful career


Jeff Haden

Everyone wants to build a successful career: To get promoted, to gain new responsibility and authority, to earn a higher salary….

(Well, maybe not everyone, but you get the point.)

Even though I held a number of responsible positions, I also made a number of missteps (one of my nicknames was CLMJ, for Career Limiting Move Jeff), so sometimes I’m not be the best person to give career advice.

So I found someone a lot better: Jim Whitehurst. Jim has gone from management consultant at Boston Consulting Group to Treasurer of Delta Airlines to Chief Operating Officer of Delta Airlines… and is now the CEO of Red Hat, the $1.1 billion open source software company. (And he’s the author of The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Purpose.)

Jim definitely knows how to build a successful career – and just as importantly, what smart leaders look for as they develop and promote talented employees.

Just don’t be surprised that the road to success requires dedication, commitment, and hard work. (If building a great career was easy, we’d all be CEOs.)

Here’s are Jim’s tips:

1. Be deeply curious.

When I look for people to place in leadership positions, especially senior leadership positions, I look for people who deeply understand the business. Probe deeply into most companies and you’ll find way too many senior executives understand their role and their division… but not the overall business, much less the broader economy.

An outstanding executive: 1) Deeply understands her specific areas of responsibility; 2) Thoroughly understands the aspects of the rest of her company; 3) Has a solid understanding of her industry, other industries, and macro-economic forces and trends.

Sound like a lot to know? It is – but it’s knowledge that will separate you from the pack. Most people work hard to check the “I’m doing a great job in my job” box, but to be a leader you need to be able to step up, care about, and truly understand the larger issues of the business.

For example, at Delta I was treasurer but I was also very concerned about our then-poor on time record. I dug into the data, met with peers, learned what people did in different departments… I wanted to know everything possible about everything possible.

It takes time, but it’s also easy: People readily talk about their frustrations, issues, and concerns. All you have to do is ask questions and listen.

In time I became known as a guy with broad skills… and one day our CEO said, “Okay, since you’ve been complaining so much about our transportation network, it’s yours.” Even though I had never held an operations job I became the COO.

People instantly recognize when you truly care about your business and truly care about learning. That always shines through – and will always take you far.

2. Learn how to get the people around you to do the best they can.

I phrase it that way because different people have different leadership styles and different ways they influence others.

Authenticity is the real key to leadership at any level, especially the senior level. The goal is to be authentic and learn to work within the framework of your personality to get people to follow your lead.

Be yourself and leverage your strengths. Don’t try to act like someone else; people can instantly tell. If you’re casual and easygoing, don’t try to switch personalities and become refined and polished. You’ll just come across as insincere and plastic.

People like, respect, and follow real people. Be yourself and learn how to get people to do what you want them to do – as yourself.

3. Find a work-life rhythm you can maintain.

You can’t treat your career like a crash diet: Cut your calories in half and exercise like crazy and you will lose weight, but eventually you won’t be able to stick with a program like that… and you’ll gain back the weight you lost.

A career works the same way. While there will be periods of intense stress – like in my case when Delta was preparing for bankruptcy or during my first 100 days at Red Hat – in general you must find a business and life rhythm you can maintain over the long term.

Find a rhythm where you can have enough time for family and friends, feel satisfied emotionally, and still excel at work, because building a great career is a marathon, not a sprint.

4. Care deeply.

Don’t kid yourself: Everyone knows when you’re only in it for yourself.

Unless you truly care about the company you work for and are personally invested in its success, you will never work as hard as you need to work to truly succeed.

Every great leader is deeply invested in the success of others; every great business leader, regardless of position or level, cares deeply about their company and the people around them. If you don’t care deeply now, find something you do care deeply about: Another function, another mission, another company, etc.

You can only reach your full potential, both personally and in a career, when you truly care.

5. Build your team.

Outside of work we all need a broader group of people we can rely on to provide advice and guidance – people who care about our success the same way we care about theirs.

My “team” includes ex-partners from Boston Consulting Group, ex-colleagues from Delta, great friends from B-school… they all care about my success and freely give me advice, perspective, support, etc. They’re on “Team Jim,” and I’m on “Team Chris,” “Team Rob,” etc.

The people on your team don’t need to be older, grizzled sages – they just need to know you and care about you.

Make sure you have people in your life you can always turn to… and for whom you will always do the same.

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