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What A Car Can Teach Us About A Successful Career

I was talking to Andrea, a leader in a big corporate here in the Seattle area. Very smart and hardworking she was, her resume spoke for itself. As a senior director role in this new job, she was facing some challenges that she had never experienced before. The main feedback she was getting that others didn’t know what value she was bringing to the organization, they were not aware of her contribution.

The solution in her mind was simple, only if she had the skill of being vocal in meetings she would have been prolific enough to blow her own horn. Not that she totally felt confident that she had done a great job. Instead, she felt she didn’t get enough opportunity yet to do some real contribution. All her time was spent getting the team settled and letting go of some of the employees for various reasons. The organization priorities had been pretty flux and ambiguous, on top her team was resource starved. And that is where she was feeling stuck. All these years of hard work and success were not helping her in this dim situation.

Andrea is not alone, this is a very common story I often hear with some variations. What I noticed that most of these smart accomplished women have a very similar background story as well. At a very young age, they were very serious about their school work, no one doubted that she would be very successful someday. I myself am no exception! I had a belief that no matter how hard things are I will be able to figure it out if I work hard for it. So, I did. It worked for the most part until it didn’t. After finishing school, I worked at a couple of places and had a family of my own. When I fairly and squarely earned the right to be called a successful professional woman, I started noticing it was too much work! And even though I was able to perform those, all it was producing endless series of more and more hurdles without much of a sustaining fulfillment. I was getting depleted, I felt disappointed, I started to question my own competency even!

It was a very crucial few years when I was looking for an answer, to fill the gap between my expectation and the reality. I didn’t know who to ask for help. I am glad to say today I have become that person who could have helped my younger self. Here are some of the nuggets I learned from my own exploration.

Shift Gear As You Speed Up

In a very simple analogy, the career journey is like a car, those who have some idea of a manual transmission car might be able to relate. When we start a car, it needs to put a significant amount of force to get it moving. As it gains some decent speed, we need to change the higher gear so that it can harness the engine power to accelerate. Similarly, for our career If we keep on driving at the first gear and expect the same kind of result as we had in our early career days, it will be stressing the engine without much result. When we attain a higher level say as a mid-level professional, the next level of growth would come from how we are collaborating with our peers, our teams and our bosses, how responsive we are to the environment/market. In a car/gear analogy, it is when we change the gear to the higher level so that we leverage the engine power more and minimize the friction.

This is when we are showing up more like a partner to our bosses rather than waiting for their instructions. One common blocking behavior is we wait for instructions, we assume someone has to give us permission to do something. In a recent article, I found this term, “permission-based” mindset.  The author suggested, “Kill that permission-based mindset, become an idea generator instead”. This becomes natural when we are more aware of our purpose and how it aligns with the organization’s purpose. In the driving analogy, it is about knowing where the organization is heading. How as a leader or an employee we can help to move it in that direction. Similar to the roadblocks, potholes there will be obstacles. When we are clear about the destination and are excited about it, we are more creative to figure a detour without taking it as a failure and possibly getting disheartened.

Do A Regular Maintenance

When we are cruising along in a car on the 4th/5th gear we don’t necessarily keep on driving like this forever. The maintenance or taking care of the car is a very important part of the journey. Any decent driver knows that the car not only needs fuel, having a healthy tire pressure and regular oil change are a must for keeping the car in a good condition.

For high achieving, high performing women one common issue I see is we are very stingy about self-care. In the EQ assessments for such clients, very often I see one outlier – very low emotional vitality. According to the book Emotional Energy Factor by Mora Kirshenbaum, 70% of our total energy needs have to be from emotional energy. Navigating the corporate leadership role with low emotional vitality is like driving off road with low tire pressure. It puts enormous pressure on one’s willpower. We don’t have time to do anything fun, hobbies or any regular activity for our own entertainment. When I noticed this in my own EQ profile, I started a few things to address it. One of them was taking a Zumba class which helped bring quite a joy in my life. Hiking in nature, spending quality time with friends, spending time for a hobby are some other ways to increase one’s emotional vitality.

Bottom Line

If it is not obvious already, a grown-up life is very different from what we experience in schools. The corporate life is even farther away from what we have been trained for. If we keep on treating it like that we will be doing a big disfavor to ourselves.  There is so much progress we need make at the systemic level, we can not afford to ignore these relatively simple strategic ways to optimize our own potential. Let’s treat ourselves and our career at least the way we treat our car.

Sharmin Banu, PCC

Sharmin Banu has 20 years of diverse experience as an executive coach and as a technology leader. Through transformative coaching approach, Sharmin helps her clients to create awareness, build new habits/skills resulting in greater leadership presence and more sustainable impact to the bottom line.