Aiming for Everest One Peak at a Time

Note: This is part 3 of the series on Growth and Unhappiness. Before reading this article, please read part 1 and part 2 for the sake of continuity.

Background:

In part 1 of this series, we saw how the reckless pursuit of career growth (i.e. promotions) can cause anguish. In part 2, we read about the example of Srikanth who refused to grow and still managed to stay happy. He had realized that his true calling was in what he was already doing, and didn’t need to change roles (that accompany promotions) and endanger his peace of mind.

Of course, not everyone is like Srikanth; many of us do need the promotions and change of roles for a variety of reasons – may be to satisfy a sense of adventure, for a feeling of accomplishment, or whatever. And of course, the business world would be in grave trouble if everyone refused promotions!

So, in this article, we will assume that we do want those promotions, and explore one easy method to manage our growth and stay happy.

The Government has figured it out!

It is fashionable to criticize government jobs for many things – including the method they use for promotions. To “grow” in a government job you simply have to spend some time at every position. A classmate from my engineering college – let’s call him Krishnan – is now a Director in a defense research laboratory. He joined the lab at the lowest rung – that of a Scientist B. Even that sounded quite impressive to the rest of us who were donning titles like Trainee Engineer and Junior Engineer. Krishnan stayed at Scientist B for some five years and was then promoted to Scientist C. He kept “growing” like this at a predictable rate and after about 25 years with the lab, he became Scientist G – the equivalent of a Director.

We from the private sector, of course, made fun of this, although we had our own grievances to grind about the growth methodology used in our firms. The point is: the government’s method probably has some logic behind it, which probably got lost in the verities of bureaucracy.

The logic is simply that one must become eligible for the next position by maturing in the current position.

Acclimatize to the thin air:

There is an excellent book called “Into Thin Air”, in which the author narrates the story of a 1996 mountaineering expedition to Mount Everest. One thing that is striking in the book is the procedure they follow to get mountaineers acclimatized to heights. They go up and down frequently, spending a little extra time at the highest spot at every turn. Then they increase the challenge after a few such rounds. This way, their bodies get used to the thin air. They become ready for the next hop. (The expedition in the book unfortunately turned out to be quite disastrous.)

It is really the same with corporate growth expeditions. One needs to stay at each level long enough to get acclimatized to the challenges at that level before attempting the next one.

Pause to smell the daisies:

Of course, just acclimatizing is not enough. Building a career should be viewed as a journey by train – a special train that takes extended stops at every station! You must spend time at every position in your organization until you become a master of your role. Work until you see your peers coming to you for help and aid. Become indispensable to your superiors. When this happens, you will become so valuable that your company would not be able to afford to keep you from the promotion you deserve.

The time you spend at every position is immensely valuable – not just from a growth point of view. You will build solid bonds with teammates and create happy memories of the challenging moments. These bonds will be helpful when you will grow into a leadership position and your success will depend on their cooperation and support. The happy memories will come handy when you grow old and write an autobiography of a successful and happy career!

When you’re ready, get ready some more!

Even if you think you are ready for the next position, you are not really ready until you take the trouble to understand the role envisaged by the new position. Observe people playing these roles successfully; try to figure out the additional challenges. Get a sense of how interesting that new position would be for you. In some cases, this role-playing might make you even decide that you are not psychologically ready for the new position. The psychological comfort is extremely important for you to succeed in any role.

Unlike train stations – which are pretty much all alike – corporate positions are each quite different. A junior engineer becoming a senior engineer may not see a dramatic difference, aside from more technical complexity and expectation of higher efficiency. But, there are position transitions that can potentially be nothing less than traumatic. A most common example is the promotion of an individual contributor to a leadership role – like an engineer becoming a Team Leader. The famous management guru Ram Charan calls these transition points as U-turns, because you almost have to unlearn some of your existing skills. Most failures result from underestimating these inflection points and from being too cavalier about the magnitude of change.

Be sure you recognize these inflection points and understand the required aptitude, skills, and responsibilities involved in the new positions. Figure out how you will go about acquiring those additional skills. Determine whether you are really cut out for that new responsibility.

Putting it all together:

Staying at each position long enough not only gives us a mastery of that role and makes us ready for the next level, but it also enables us to truly enjoy our career. Even while staying focused on our goals, we learn how to enjoy the journey. That is, in a nutshell, the secret of happiness at work.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] to grow into leadership and management positions and still had no trouble staying happy. And, in part 3, we explored one easy method to manage our […]

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