Business Book Review

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Review: The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers - The Guide for Achieving Success and Satisfaction

Many believe that a successful career is the result of dumb luck, good timing, political savvy, good business and/or social connections, high levels of intelligence, brown nosing, and/or unethical behavior. However, based on their extensive experience at Spencer Stuart (a preeminent global executive search firm that conducts approximately 60 percent of all Fortune 1000 CEO searches), and their exhaustive original research into who the exceptional executives really are and how they achieve their success, Citrin and Smith propose a far different reality: Success is a result of a consistent series of opportunities and performance over time, “marked by five distinct patterns that distinguish the very top from the rest of the pack.” In The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers, they combine a wide variety of examples and executive experiences with breakthrough career principles to offer a detailed examination of these distinct patterns. With this insightful examination, they answer the key question every professional should ponder, “What perspective must I adopt and what consequent actions must I take to create extraordinary career success and fulfillment?”

“Value is not intrinsic; it is not in things. It is within us; it is the way in which man reacts to the conditions of his environment.”
--Ludwig von Mises

According to Citrin and Smith’s findings, those who rise to the top and prosper follow five simple patterns that can be harnessed and used by every one. Successful professionals understand how their value is created in the workplace; practice benevolent leadership; overcome the permission paradox; differentiate, using the 20/80 principle; and find the right fit.

A career is governed by dynamics that significantly influence the individual’s value in the marketplace for professional talent and that go beyond short-term compensation. For example, when people first enter the workforce, they have potential value that is transformed over time into more highly compensated experiential value as their careers progress and they gain experiences that really matter. Given this reality, extraordinarily successful executives understand when it is advantageous to go for a potential promotion in the short term in order to get into position for an experiential promotion later on. They know that their true worth is determined by a combination of both kinds of value.

Even more important is understanding the need to let go. Every career success tends to bring additional assignments that require collaborative efforts. And, when this occurs, the individual must build a strong team or risk being crushed under the weight of too much direct responsibility. This is about focusing on achieving success through others, which the authors have found to be the best way to attain the rewards of an extraordinary career.

Practicing this kind of benevolent leadership uses an approach based on trust and the alignment of individual goals with those of the organization. Regardless of interpersonal style, benevolent leaders foster an environment characterized by open communication, honesty, and confidence, where authority is freely questioned without fear of retribution. They delegate critical tasks as well as minor responsibilities. They demonstrate how the team’s success directly benefits each member. And, they maximize performance through barrier eliminating facilitation. The result is a positive working environment that attracts the best loyal performers who are inspired and motivated to perform at peak levels in order to work toward common goals. The ability to create this kind of workplace highlights a vital element in managing one’s career: “Extraordinary success is achieved by making those around you successful.”

One of the greatest “Catch-22s” in business is the permission paradox: Without experience, it is virtually impossible to get the desired job, but without the job, it is impossible to gain the requisite experience. Nonetheless, successful executives understanding the secret of consistently gaining access to critical experiences and combining this access with strong performance, manage to sidestep this dilemma and master the skill of clarifying and expanding the scope of what they have permission to do.

There are two kinds of permission—direct and implied. With direct permission, you can do something because someone says you can. With implied permission, you can do something because no one has said you cannot. Although direct permission is the most common and easily identified source of authority, it can also be very limiting—those who consistently rely on it find themselves consistently stuck when it is withheld. By contrast, implied permission, which is more subtle, but potentially much more powerful, is taken not given. Successful professionals see their job descriptions merely as a starting point from which to expand the scope of their responsibilities via implied permission. And, because they perform well at these tasks they have undertaken on their own initiative, they are ultimately granted direct permission to continue expanding the scope of their duties.

Citrin and Smith identify eight effective strategiesfor gaining this kind of permission and taking charge of one’s experiences (and, therefore, one’s career): the direct approach, demonstrating competence, changing jobs, getting credentials, bartering (i.e., “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.”), masquerading as the leader, strategic mentoring, and playing politics. Each has unique characteristics and likely outcomes. Some are more effective for gaining direct permission, others are better for implied permission, and some can be used for both (except playing politics, which is not effective in any situation). However, it is critical to understand all of them so as to gain insight into the many creative ways to gain access to the best opportunities.

Although 80 percent of what professionals do is the ordinary work that almost any of their peers can accomplish, extraordinary executives excel because of where they focus the remaining 20 percent of their activities. This 20/80 principle is about consistently meeting objectives and then using one’s remaining resources to make an impact on the organization in innovative ways, with objectives one has created, and in areas that generate the most value. The goal is to aim high so there is a dramatic increase in the rate of positive change within the organization. Understanding what really generates value, extraordinary executives assess their current activities, freeing up valuable resources so they can be used to create a differentiated impact. They engage in breakthrough thinking so as to home in on undefined tasks that can broaden the scope of their jobs and expand their critical networks. And, they communicate early and often with management and other critical constituencies to inform them as to why their energies are being spent on new activities and to ensure that these efforts are aligned with management’s goals.

The authors have found that an extraordinary career is not about getting top dollar for a top position—success requires that individuals play to their strengths, set their passions free, and fit into their work culture naturally and comfortably. Thus, in addition to knowing how to improve their marketplace value, successful professionals also know how to use the value they create. Unfortunately, this is not the norm. Too many people follow the customary career trajectory, letting promotions push them higher up the professional ladder to positions that may not represent the best personal fit and that may also increase the possibility of suboptimal performance and lack of professional fulfillment. However, a more effective approach, say Citrin and Smith, is for individuals to allow their strengths, passions, and people preferences to pull their careers gradually toward the activities, roles, and environments they ardently favor, which will sometimes require making the difficult decision to ignore conventional wisdom and turn down promotions others would covet.

The authors believe that this kind of career decision can be distilled into the three primary factors that influence an individual’s evaluation of career alternatives—job satisfaction, lifestyle, and compensation. The ultimate goal must be to maximize all three factors simultaneously by making the best possible tradeoffs based on one’s goals, career phase, and stage of life. However, in no way does this suggest that compensation and prestige be disregarded— quite the contrary. Citrin and Smith believe that if you ignore them in the short term and focus on maximizing the personal fit that will allow you to create the kind of value that has lasting impact, compensation and prestige will inevitably follow.

Steering a career in this manner requires the clear reflection that comes from self-understanding. It also demands that individuals manage their opportunities by macromanaging their professional lives and creating career options. Instead of striving for the next raise or promotion, successful professionals focus on the core values that drive their long-term goals and, at the same time, they add to their current assignments in a way that differentiates their performance. In addition, they evaluate whether a career move will increase or decrease the number of professional options available to them. Options have value—the more options one has, the easier it is to navigate toward jobs that leverage one’s strengths, passions, and people fit.

Successful professionals also make the right choices. They watch for career flares—those tasks beyond their current responsibilities that energize them the most and, thus, indicate their ideal fit. And, understanding that poor cultural compatibility can be a major obstacle in achieving job satisfaction and success (even if the job perfectly matches their skills and experiences), and that a great cultural fit can overcome major gaps in skills and experience, they also choose organizations with well-matched cultures, filled with people they like and respect.

“The existence of extraordinary professionals within your company should not be left to chance, but should actually be developed from existing employees.”

Citrin and Smith believe that if the five patterns of extraordinary careers are applied at the organizational level, the opportunities for enterprisewide productivity and performance gains may be even more significant than they are for individuals. When organizations rethink how they attract, select, develop, assess, and reward employees based on the establishment of a strong value system, grounded in empowerment, proactive behavior, and integrity, they become extraordinary enterprises. This is because happy executives are also productive executives, and productive executives are less likely to seek opportunities elsewhere.

In order to create this kind of environment, leaders must develop a culture of success, providing each employee with the tools, information, and environment to foster his or her own advancement. This involves increasing the career knowledge within the organization (i.e., helping employees understand their value) so they are more likely to manage their own careers, proactively do the things that add value to themselves and to the organization, and remain loyal. It is about encouraging the practice of benevolent leadership so that everyone focuses on the success of the team, with the result that leaders and their employees develop to their full potential. It requires teaching employees to overcome the permission paradox in order to foster an atmosphere of growth, a commitment to equal opportunity, and an empowered and proactive workforce. It demands instilling the 20/80 principle of performance so that employees focus on those things that add the most value to the organization. And, it involves guiding employees toward positions of maximum fit so as to dramatically increase employee satisfaction and productivity, and dramatically decrease employee turnover.

Creating the extraordinary organization also requires implementing the most accurate and effective performance assessment system and recognizing and rewarding the best performers in such a way that they are encouraged to remain loyal and motivated to perform up to their highest potential. Moreover, enterprises must evaluate existing resources against current and future competitive challenges and aggressively fill any perceived gaps by putting the best talent in critical positions. These initiatives are based on the critical realities that individual career success benefits the entire organization, that the strongest performers contribute a disproportionate amount of the value to a company, and that performance and productivity are maximized when resources are aligned with the most critical needs of the whole.

* * *
Bibliographic notes by chapter, a supplemental reading list, and a subject index are provided.

Most would agree that ours is no longer an Organization-Man-in-a-Gray-Flannel-Suit world. Individual careers have become as complex as the overall business environment, where the rapidity of change has increased insecurity and anxiety in every sector. Citrin and Smith believe, however, that good news does, indeed, still abound. Because value is increasingly being placed in intellectual property, “companies are investing more time and money to seek out executive talent.” Nonetheless, they warn that career success is not easily achieved, but requires understanding its patterns and tailoring them to one’s personality, aspirations, individual situations, and personal strengths and weaknesses. Based on a formidable amount of exhaustive research, this view challenges the most widely held assumptions about professional success—the idea that there are patterns in extraordinary careers is not, at all, conventional wisdom. However, the book’s rich anecdotes (about the likes of Louis Gerstner, Senator Elizabeth Dole, Yahoo’s Dan Rosensweig, and a host of others in every conceivable professional situation), logical analyses, and practical concrete insights, garnered by the authors from their deep assessment of real executives, show that this notion is indeed the new reality, now and into the future.

The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers is indeed impressive in its scope and depth, but it must also be eminently appreciated for the virtue of its simplicity. Readers won’t find the usual fare here. Mercifully, there are no endless lists of how-to-claw-your-way-tothe-executive-corner-office guidelines, cabalistic in their intricacy and fashioned to strip individuals of their authentic selves and transform them into caricatures of our pop culture’s notion of success (oftentimes a portrait of Gordon Gecko, slightly less feral than the original). Instead, Citrin and Smith provide forthright guidance based on the fundamentals of human psychology, group dynamics, self-assessment, and the objective evaluation of marketplace opportunities to help readers formulate a highly individualized approach to career planning. It is an approach that seems to be closely aligned with sound self-help guidance for living a fulfilled life, no matter what one’s career ambitions. Thus, not only will those on the executive career track discover insights for effectively propelling their careers forward, individuals at every level will find breakthrough applicable advice for performing at their greatest potential. This is the bonus value of this work, for as the authors emphasize throughout, real success is achieved through others who are themselves successful.

Reading Suggestions
Reading time: 13-15 hours, 273 Pages in Book

Because the premise that those who rise to the top and prosper follow simple patterns that can be harnessed and replicated by anyone is a somewhat novel idea, we recommend that you read the entire book, from the introduction through the conclusion in order to understand the concept fully. Moreover, because the authors are talking about interdependent patterns, rather than a series of rigid, mechanical steps, you need the whole picture to understand how the patterns interact and drive your progress.

The “Spencer Stuart Job Survival Guide” is a special section for those who, for whatever reason, want or need to find a new position. You can read this section, or not, depending upon your specific needs. However, even if you are in dire need of this kind of advice, we strongly suggest that you not skip to this section before reading all the previous material. These insights are designed to leverage the lessons of the five patterns to guide you through the career transition process as effectively as possible. To take full advantage of this guidance, you need to understand the tools, perspectives, and experiences detailed in the first section.

Pattern 1: Understand the Value of You
Pattern 2: Practice Benevolent Leadership
Pattern 3: Overcome the Permission Paradox
Pattern 4: Differentiate Using the 20/80 Principle
Pattern 5: Find the Right Fit (Strengths, Passions, and People)

The Patterns of Extraordinary Organizations
Conclusion: Putting the Patterns into Practice
Special Section: The Spencer Stuart Job Change Survival Guide

About the Authors

James M. Citrin leads Spencer Stuart’s Global Technology, Communication, and Media practice and is a member of the firm’s board of directors. He is the author of Zoom: How Exceptional Companies Are Navigating the Road to the Next Economy and the coauthor of the best-selling Lessons from the Top: The 50 Most Successful Business Leaders in America and What You Can Learn from Them.

Richard A. Smith is a respected author, thought leader, and search practitioner with Spencer Stuart, where he currently co-leads the firm’s Venture Capital and Private Equity practice, within the Technology, Media, and Communications practice, which he cofounded in 2001. Smith is the author of the widely cited CEO study Top Tier Talent: Investment Strategies for Human Capital, a contributor to the Venture Capital Review, and the cocreator of Spencer Stuart’s Human Capital Market Index (HCMI).

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