Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Can I have a little success with that?

Remember that whole Peter Principle thing from a few years back. You know, we rise to our level of incompetence. I get daily reminders that it is a plausibly accurate description of world of work. I would like to add two corollary to Peter’s observation and then a few pointers on how you can measure your career success while accounting for both phenomenon.

The Perpendicularity Corollary
Somewhere, lost in the archives, is my dissertation research on clinical supervision. The clinical supervisor is the person who meets with counselors, psychotherapists, and social workers to consult and advise on their approach in specific cases. Sort of like House, MD. As footnote to our research, we found that people were given clinical supervision posts, not because they were good clinical supervisors, not because they had additional training in supervision, and not even because they were particularly good at counseling or psychotherapy. They were given supervision posts because they were the most senior staff, hence the Perpendicularity Corollary… He/she who remains perpendicular to the floor for the longest period of time gets to be boss. The importance of understanding the Perpendicularity Corollary has to do with a common yardstick for measuring success… being the boss. Even being in charge, however, is subject to the chaotic rules of social order.

The Dr. John Corollary
Some of you may be seasoned enough to remember the Dr. John song, "Right Place, Wrong Time." The opening lyric is,
"I been in the right place
But it must have been the wrong time."
Early in my career, I worked at a residential treatment facility for adolescents. Like most people in the non-profit world, I was grossly underpaid, but committed to social change. One day my boss told me that I was being promoted to Assistance Counseling Team Supervisor. He clapped me on my back and said,
"We're all very proud of your success. You've made it to Assistant Counseling Team Supervisor faster than anyone except Bruce! Congratulations."
I was quite proud and chanted my new title over and over, "Assistance Counseling Team Supervisor, Assistance Counseling Team Supervisor, Assistance Counseling Team Supervisor." It conveyed power and majesty. Then I ran into Bruce... the only person to become an Assistance Counseling Team Supervisor more quickly than me.
"Bruce, I just got promoted! Cool, huh?"

"Dude. Check it out. Who is on your team?" he asked.

"Uh, me Ann and Bill."

"So, you're, like, assisting supervising one dude, right?"

"Uh huh. But I got a raise, too," I said, at this point, clearly expecting another shoe to drop.

"Yeah, about that. You used to be, like, a non-exempt dude and now you are, like, an exempt dude, which means you used to get overtime, but now you don't. You're, like, screwed, dude."
Bruce was, like, right. My take home pay dwindled as my time at work increased. The source of my rapid rise? Three people resigned the week before. Had they not left, I would not have been successful. The Financial Times of London has suggested that "successful entrepreneurs" are no more successful than I was. That is, experience has little to do with having the insight to start or fund a "successful" business plan. A significant amount of luck is involved. As Nick Brisborne says, "It is not possible to learn how to win the lottery."

Tenacity and Luck.

So if bossing is your measure of success, be advised that bossing is often conferred based on the length of one's tenure with an organization (Tenacity) or how quickly those ahead of you bail for greener pastures. If this is a less than satisfying way to measure your own success, let me suggest a few others.

I would say that a person is successful if he or she can make the following statements about their skill set.
  • I am pretty good at what I do and understand what resources are necessary to be effective.
  • My colleagues and peers at other institutions seem to respect my opinion on professional matters.
  • My supervisor/boss values my input on new projects or my feedback on problems.
  • I have been able to mentor others who are new to my field.
I get a kick out of somebody asking my thoughts about a new project or plan and while I would rather have more money, I try to use these occasions to remind my boss of my value. That may be the subtext here. If someone taps you for advice, information, or guidance, be sure that the person you report to knows about it. I have been doing some things for the University President's Office and you can bet that I have shared that with my boss and it will also appear on my end of year self-appraisal.

. As above, I would say that a person is successful if he or she can make the following statements about their creativity and openness to change.
  • I am an early adopter.
  • I am up to date with current trends and techniques.
  • My co-workers presume that I understand technology and ask for help.
  • I Facebook, blog, Tweet, Email, PowerPoint, etc. (and even if I don't, I'm not afraid to!)
  • I call the Tech Department often because I tend to push technology to its limits.
  • I don't like change, but I enjoy the challenge of change.
Perhaps the secret here is the openness to change. I have been knocking around in the workforce for more than two decades now and I remain flabbergasted at the folks my age who steer clear of technology and change. A few months ago, I contacted someone to tell them about changes in our programs to correct misinformation that had been given to students and alumni. The response I got was, "You can tell me, but if it is more than 50 words, I will probably just keep saying what I am saying, 'cos I have been doing this for 18 years and changing is just too hard now."

Leisure time.
I would say that a person is successful if he or she can make the following statements about their leisure time.
  • I have enough time away from work to act as a supportive parent or spouse.
  • I have been able to develop interests that are different from my work (Day trading doesn't count if you are a broker.)
  • I have volunteered for several different community programs or projects.
  • I am able to take a nap without feeling guilty or anxious.
In one of my sociology classes years ago, the professor made the point that an indigenous tribe in the Amazon was the most successful culture because they seldom had to work for more that two or three hours a day to supply food and clothing for their village. (I somehow think that all that was being counted here was the time the men spent hunting and fishing and not the women's tasks of cooking, sewing, gardening, birthing babies, etc. I will leave that for another post.)

A few days ago, I shared that I had initially been in the insurance industry and opined that if I were still there that I would likely be making more money. However, by choosing the path that I did, I got in more fishing, camping, and hiking, had more time with my kids when they were younger, volunteered more frequently as a coach, teacher's aide, board member, etc. I will also add here that I have friends who have very time-consuming, high pressure jobs who still find the time to do most of the things I did. Success in this arena is not measured by the raw amount of time one contributes or relaxes, but the degree of fulfillment that one realizes from these efforts.

Making it up as I go along.
One of my favorite counselors was a young woman, named Maria, fresh out of her Master's program. She worked as an intern counselor in a couple middle schools doing family interventions to help stabilize student performance. After two or three particularly difficult sessions with a family, she and I decided that my direct observation might help her figure out what to do. We actually collaborated for two sessions and things turned around pretty quickly.
"How do you do it?" she wanted to know. "Why are you so successful at this?" I thought about it for a while and said, "I'm not sure, I think a lot of it I just make up as I go along."

This is, I think, a key element in anyone's success. The openness to change mentioned above girded with the occasional willingness to improvise will create opportunities for you to see yourself as successful. While I am sure that some people "earn" their success, I think that many of us are more able to accept and see the moments of success that we stumble into.

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