Good Performance Is Not Enought to Guarantee Your Career Success

This is a long post today.  I’ve written it because of a quote in last Sunday’s New York Times Business section in a column called “The Chatter.” It came from a guy who was recently laid off by Credit Suisse.  He said, “I did everything right.  I came into work every day, I put in long hours and I still got punched in the face.”

I feel bad for this guy, but he is a victim of the biggest myth when it comes to life and career success.  That myth is “Good performance is enough.”  Coming to work every day, even staying late is not going to get you where you want to go in today’s tough business environment.

In early 2011 I was reading an article about Robert Redford.  He said, “When I got into this business, I had this naïve idea that I would let my work speak for me.”  That made me sit up and take notice because I’d heard something similar the week before.

I had been invited to do a talk for the Women’s Mentoring Group at one of my large corporate clients.  I was speaking with the coordinator and she pulled out a list of things that often times are career success blockers for women.  One of the things on the list was “thinking that your work will speak for itself.”

For many years I have been telling my career success clients that when it comes to creating your life and career success, there is one huge myth that can get in your way — “Good performance is enough,” or “your work will speak for itself.”

Yes, you have to be a good performer to create your life and career success.  But good performance alone will not result in creating the life and career success you want and deserve.  I learned this the hard way.  In today’s highly competitive world, good performance is merely the price of admission to the career success sweepstakes.

Here’s my story.  I was born a working class guy.  My grandparents on my mother’s side emigrated from Poland.  That grandfather worked in a factory in the town where I grew up near Pittsburgh.  My father’s parents were born in the USA but never went to school.  My grandmother helped her mother run a boarding house for miners and then started work as a domestic when she was ten.  My grandfather went to work in the coal mines of Central Pennsylvania when he was eight.

My hometown was a company town called Ambridge PA, so named because the American Bridge Division of US Steel was headquartered there.  My dad was an hourly worker for American Bridge for almost 40 years.  My mom worked as a checkout person at a local supermarket and then as an office manager for a Kmart store.

Neither of my parents got anywhere near a college, but education was a big thing in our house.  All I heard growing up was “go to college,” “go to college.”  I worked hard and got good grades in high school.  I graduated from Penn State in 1972. (I am very ashamed of my university and the manner in which it handled the child abuse situation.  Recently I took my three Penn State t shirts, a swetshirt and cap to Goodwill.  I won’t wear them any more.) I did a year of service as a VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) Volunteer, and then began my career as a trainer – working for the government, training other people to become VISTA Volunteers.

I knew that I didn’t want to spend my career in government, so I went to school at night to get a Master’s degree in two years, working 5:30 – 10:30 for four nights a week.  I worked full time and went to school full time, graduating with a 4.0.

Then I got my first job in business.  It was in the training department of a large oil company.  I worked hard, did a good job – and kept getting passed over for promotion.  The reasons were vague: “you’ve only been here a little while,” “the hiring manager thought the other person was a better fit,”  “you need to polish up some of those rough edges.”

So I found another job, this time with a large chemical company.  I worked hard, did a good job, got good performance reviews – and no promotions.  I was frustrated.  In my heart of hearts, I knew I was as good as or better than people who were moving ahead while I was standing still.

I decided that maybe more school would be the answer.  I quit my job, and enrolled in a PhD program in Adult Education and Organizational Behavior at Harvard.  Once I got there though, I realized that the same thing happens in academia as happens in business.  The hardest workers and best performers don’t always get rewarded and promoted.

I decided that I had an opportunity to use my situation as a lab.  At Harvard, I was surrounded by high performers – people who had achieved a lot at an early age, and seemed destined to achieve even more.  I decided that maybe I should pay some attention to these folks.

I got one of those marble-covered notebooks and made a list of all the people I admired at Harvard, all of the people in the companies where I had worked who’d got the promotions I didn’t, and the people who had been role models to me in my life.  I started reading biographies of successful people; the list was varied, people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, etc., etc., etc.  I created a page for each person.  I started writing down the characteristics that I observed in these people.  When I was finished, I had a notebook full of the characteristics I observed in successful people.

It was a long list.  So I did kind of a human regression analysis on it.  I started looking for patterns and groups of behaviors.  When it was all said and done, I found four distinct characteristics that the successful people I had studied had in common.

They all:

• Had a clearly defined purpose and direction for their lives.
• Were committed to succeeding.  They faced obstacles and overcame them.
• Were self-confident.  They knew they were going to succeed and continue to succeed as they went through life.
• Were outstanding performers.
• Knew how to present themselves in a favorable light.  Other people were attracted to them and wanted to be around them.
• Were dynamic communicators.
• Were good at building relationships.

Once I finished my degree, I took a job with a very large pharmaceutical company in New York.  I started applying the lessons I’d learned from observing successful people – and I began getting promotions and good assignments.  I became the confidant of several senior executives and I began coaching “up and comers” in the company – teaching them the basic principles I had discovered by writing my observations in that marble-covered notebook.

I also kept refining my ideas, making them easier for others to understand and apply.  You never learn something as well as when you teach it.  I became the most sought-after internal coach in that company.

In 1988, I was faced with a decision: accept a big promotion to Vice President, or strike out on my own.  I decided that I have an entrepreneurial bent and chose the latter.  I opened up a small consulting, coaching and speaking business.  The idea was to reach an even greater number of people with what I knew about creating a successful life and career.

For many years, I thrived as a corporate consultant.  Then I got cancer – and survived.  I realized that there was more to life than working as a highly paid consultant.  I realized that I had an opportunity to reach even more people with my common sense message about career and life success, people I would never get a chance to meet working one on one with executives in very large companies.

That’s why I make everything I know about life and career success widely available.  I want to help as many people as I can create the successful lives and careers they want and deserve.  I survived a cancer scare, and now I want to give as much as I can, to as many people as I can.

My career advice is based on seven simple but powerful common sense ideas.

1. Clarity of purpose and direction
2. Commitment to taking personal responsibility for your life and career
3. Unshakeable self-confidence
4. Outstanding performance
5. Positive personal impact
6. Dynamic communication
7. Relationship building

These seven principles have guided me on my success journey.  I share them in this blog, in my books and my talks so they can guide you and others like you on your personal journey to the career and life success you want and deserve.  Let’s look at them in a little more detail.

There are three keys to developing your clarity of purpose and direction.  You have to…

• Define what success means to you personally.
• Create a vivid mental picture of yourself as a success.
• Clarify your personal values.

There are three keys to committing to your success.  You have to…

• Take personal responsibility for your success.
• Set high goals – and do whatever it takes to achieve them.
• Choose to respond positively to people and events.

There are three keys to becoming self-confident.  You have to…

• Choose optimism.  Believe in your heart of hearts that today will be better than yesterday and that tomorrow will be better than today.
• Face your fears and act.  Don’t let your fears paralyze you into inaction.  Self-confident people act.
• Surround yourself with positive people.  Jettison the nay-sayers in your life.

There are four keys to becoming an outstanding performer. You have to…

• Keep your skills up to date by becoming a lifelong learner.
• Understand the numbers.  Business runs on numbers.  Get to know the finances of your company and your industry.
• Manage your time, life and stress well.
• Live a healthy lifestyle.

There are four keys to creating positive personal impact.  You have to…

• Be strong of character
• Create and nurture your unique personal brand.
• Be impeccable in your presentation of self – in person and on line.
• Know and follow the basic rules of business etiquette.

There are three keys to becoming a dynamic communicator.  You have to…

• Communicate well in conversation.
• Communicate well in writing.
• Communicate well in presentations.

There are three keys to building strong relationships.  You have to…

• Understand yourself.  Use this self understanding to better understand others.
• Pay it forward.  Give with no expectation of return.
• Resolve conflict in a manner that strengthens, not destroys, the relationships you’ve worked hard to build.

I know this sounds like a tall order when you see and hear it like this.  These ideas can be a bit overwhelming.  That’s why I write this blog.  That’s why I write books.  That’s why I’ve created my membership, My Corporate Climb.  I want to help you create the life and career success you want and deserve.

That’s my career advice based on the comments of a recently laid off banker.  What do you think?  Please take a minute to share your thoughts with us in a comment.  As always, thanks for reading my daily musings on life and career success.  I value you and I appreciate you.


PS: If you haven’t already done so, please download a free copy of my popular career advice book Success Tweets and its companion piece Success Tweets Explained.  The first gives you 140 bits of career success advice tweet style — in 140 characters or less.  The second is a whopping 390 + pages of career advice explaining each of the common sense tweets in Success Tweets in detail.  Go to to claim your free copy.  You’ll also start receiving my daily life and career success quotes.

PPS: I opened a membership site on September 1.  It’s called My Corporate Climb and is devoted to helping people create career success inside large corporations.  You can find out about the membership site by going to http://www.mycorporateclimb.

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