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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bowie

Keys to the Boardroom: The Wrong Question

Why did such a promising individual like Steve (from The Accidental CEO post)-who appeared to have all the right ingredients and had mastered the recipe for success-suffer a total career meltdown, while someone like the electric utilities CEO-who began his career with no college degree and no career plans beyond his immediate job-rise to the top job in one of the largest utilities in America?

Before we discover the answer to this question, let’s continue a bit farther with the story of the CEO of the Fortune 500 electric utilities company:

I went to work as an unskilled laborer with <the electric company>. I went through their line school and learned how to be a lineman. I started off as an apprentice and worked my way up to first-class lineman. But I got home one day from work and I was wearing rubber sleeves and rubber gloves, covered with creosote from the pole, and I’m sitting there and I’m saying to myself: “This is all right now, I’m only twenty-some years old. But what happens when I get older?” So I started talking to my wife about it and she said, “Maybe you need a college education.” And I said, “How the hell am I going to get a college education?” By that time I had two little babies and a house mortgage and I was making $36 a week, which is hard to believe today. So I dwelled on that a while and one day I checked the board where they post the union jobs that are available and I saw “Night Troubleshooter” posted on the board. This was an all-night 4:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. position. And I said to myself, “Maybe if I get that job I can go to college fulltime during the days and get my degree.” So I bid it in and was awarded the job.

Fortune 500 Electric Utilities Company CEO

For four years this CEO went to school from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon, rushed home, got on a truck and worked until 12:30a.m., came home and studied for two hours, got three hours sleep, and started the cycle again. In addition to school, work, and family responsibilities, he also served as union shop steward. But he persevered and earned his degree in electrical engineering. Years later he became the first home-grown president of <Electric Utilities Company> and the first CEO of <Fortune 500 Electric Utilities Company> to be promoted from the internal ranks. (In his spare time, he picked up his law degree because he was tired of feeling like lawyers were always getting the better of him in negotiations and served on the city council and one term as mayor of his community.)

So what’s the difference between Steve and the CEO? Aside from the obvious contrast in opportunities with which each man began his career, the primary difference between the CEO and Steve is a matter of focus.

Steve asked the wrong questions and set his sights on the wrong targets. He built the foundation of his career on the shallow and shifting sands of ambition, focusing exclusively on what he wanted to be. Every job was just a step leading to the next job, taken not because of what it allowed him to do, but because of where he hoped it would lead him.

Steve began each day affirming his goal to be the CEO of the company. He measured every action, every opportunity, every challenge, against the yardsticks of status and self-advancement. His approach was manipulative and tactical: impress the right people…navigate the org chart…design a career strategy…do this, get this result. Eventually, the energy of ambition was not enough to sustain him through the drudgery of working at jobs he didn’t enjoy, and he became another victim of burnout.

The Fortune 500 Electric Utilities CEO, in contrast, focused not on what he wanted to be-becoming a manager, much less a CEO, was not something he entertained in his wildest dreams-instead, he focused on what he wanted to do. He woke up each morning and asked himself one question: What can I do today to take myself, my project, my department, my product line, my teammates, and my company to the next level. And despite the hardships, he loved every job he ever had.

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