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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bowie

Keys to the Boardroom: The Virtues of Nearsightedness

When my friend Steve began his career at Hewlett-Packard, he affixed his focus on the top rung of the corporate ladder and started to climb. He wanted the big promotions, to leap multiple levels in the organization so that he could arrive at the top in record time. But it wasn’t long before he failed to negotiate the next step, lost his footing and fell….

It is not that you are looking for the next two levels up, or the third level up. I think you have to be satisfied where you are. You know when I got to be group leader, I thought, "Boy, that's great, I'm tickled to death, I'm having fun." When I got to be department head, I thought, “This is great. I can raise a family and retire as department head and just be happy as I can be.” Then I got to be assistant division head and so on, but I never really aspired to go to the top or to go several levels up. I really have always aspired to be the supervisor of the group that I was in. And finally, the group I was in was the whole company and I aspired to be CEO. But when I was assistant general manager, I aspired to be the general manager.

There may be people that step out of college and say, "My goal in life is to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company," and then they go out and do it. In fact, I think the opposite may be true, that if you're working in this job and you've got three or four more levels to go before you get where you want to be, you probably never will get there. Because to get to your goal, you've got to climb the next rung on the ladder. It is hard to negotiate the next rung if your always focused on the top.

CEO of a Fortune 500 Chemical Company

There are other dangers associated with setting your sights on distant targets. Sometimes you become so obsessed with your long-range plans that you can be blinded to other options as they present themselves....

Flexibility is one thing that I’m still working on. I’m a person who likes to have things very well planned. But in today’s fast-paced environment, more than ever, you have to expect the unexpected. Of course, the unexpected isn’t always bad. There’s a saying that goes, “Watch out for emergencies, they’re your biggest chance.” I’ve found some of the best opportunities are those you didn’t plan for. Take for example when my company recruited me from Wharton. I recall the circumstances exactly. One day during my second year I was having coffee with one of my best friends, and he told me he was going to interview with <Fortune 500 Computer & Instrument Company>. It was his first choice. The company was unknown to me. Well, maybe I had seen an instrument a few years before in some engineering lab that I took, but I really knew nothing about them. So, my friend started trying to convince me to come along with him and interview, too. I said, “Well, I do have a fairly full interview schedule, but I suppose I could come, just for the practice.” But it turned out, I hit it off with the interviewer. He was different from most of the other people I had interviewed with in that he wasn’t a professional recruiter. He was a real operating manager. And he wasn’t terribly polished, but I just liked him, and what he had to say about the company. At the end, I was pretty confused. Instead of saying, “That’s done-now I’ve learned how to interview a little better,” I was quite intrigued. And I’m very glad that I was flexible enough to deviate from my earlier ideas about where I wanted to work, and, instead, accepted the offer that I got from this company. If I hadn’t, I doubt I’d be where I am today.

CEO of a Fortune 500 Computer and Instrument Company

I’ve been interviewed by employees, minority females, as a mentoring type thing and they ask me, “How did you choose to do this or that?” When I tell them this random story, they don’t believe it. My theme is: look, after you get in management, you can decide what you think you like and develop your career. You’re young yet, don’t worry too much about it. Things happen and then you decide at that juncture whether to go left or right and you decide to left. There’ll be another Y later. And you just take it a piece at a time.

CEO of a Fortune 500 Public Utilities Company

People asked me how do you get promoted and how do you draw success? I think the simple answer is that you try to do the very best job you can every day. That is the characteristic people are always looking for. If you are looking to fill a job, you look at who is doing a good job of what they’re doing today? That is the most likely candidate. I think I was and you do compete with a lot of other division managers to be a group manager. You just end up working as hard as you can to be the best division manager. It’s an attitude I had over the years. It’s probably worked out that due to scarcity and the growth of opportunities and general attitude of not going out of the company so much for managers gave those people inside a lot of opportunities to grow in a very short period of time. My career was more opportunistic than anything.

Fortune 500 CEO of a Computer and Instrument Company

So, focus on what you enjoy doing today, and let it lead where it may. Career planning boils down to this: Do what you love today. If you love what you’re doing, you will generate resources within yourself-creativity, energy, enthusiasm, commitment, initiative, intensity-to become a leader in your field. As a leader, you will generate results, and those results will be noticed. These results will generate new opportunities. If an opportunity comes along to do something else, ask whether you would love doing that even more. If so, take it. If it appears the new opportunity leads farther away from what you truly enjoy doing, turn it down. This is the formula for success.

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