One of the most visible signs of a failing business is a talent exodus. We’ve seen it at Yahoo, Twitter, HP, Blackberry and a host of other embattled companies. But attrition among top performers is not just a harbinger of pending disaster; it can also be an early sign of dysfunctional leadership.
Rising stars who really push the envelope, and their careers, are usually the first to notice that their herculean efforts are neither being rewarded nor benefitting the company as they should. Since they’re on a fast track to the top, they’re the first to jump ship.
The unfortunate result is that mediocre employees are left behind, accelerating the company’s deterioration and ultimate demise. I’ve seen it happen time and again in companies big and small, but after the first time, I learned my lesson.
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I was once an up-and-comer myself — a promising young engineer at a technology giant that had become overly bureaucratic under a dysfunctional chairman and CEO duo that, left unchecked, would eventually have run the age-old company into the ground.
One day Hal, a friend and coworker, told me he was quitting. I was floored. Hal was one of the best, a real talent. I wasn’t as surprised that he was leaving as I was that the company was letting him go. When I asked him about it, Hal said they wouldn’t promote him fast enough, so he was going somewhere that would.
That hit me hard. Like Hal, I had been identified as a candidate for management. If the company’s bureaucratic HR processes were holding him back, they would hold me back too. That’s exactly what happened. The following year, I was out the door, vowing never to let incompetent bosses stand between me and the top.
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Jumping around from company to company was sort of frowned upon back-in-the-day, but I didn’t care. I made risky bets on high-flying startups and took flyers on high-growth tech companies. I never jumped the gun before the writing was on the wall, with one exception we’ll get to in a minute.
That methodology paid off big-time. Less than a decade after leaving that first company, I was the marketing VP at a mid-sized public company with an IPO under my belt and a bright future ahead of me. Thirteen years ago, I co-founded a Silicon Valley-based management consulting firm and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
Today, ruling your own destiny and making every opportunity count is the norm for career-minded individuals, as it should be. But there are some lessons I learned along the way that I’m sure will enhance your journey, as they did mine.
Think of every job as a business.
Jobs are like product businesses. When a product is hot, you want to maximize profit margins and return-on-investment. But before it goes south, you want to make sure you’ve got the next one ready in the pipeline. Think of companies you work for the same way. Before it was popular, I was always networking and interviewing.
Be professional about it.
The most important asset you have is your reputation. Remember, it’s always in your and your company’s best interest to give it your all and do great work while you’re there. And be discrete. No boss ever had a clue that I was leaving until I was ready to go on good terms. And there was never a drop-off in performance, either.
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Don’t let mistakes get you down.
I once got antsy and left a sweet SVP position to be CEO of an ill-fated startup. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, but I left too soon and it cost me seven figures when the former company went public. I think my wife’s still a little PO'ed, but I made peace with it years ago. You’re going to make some bad calls; it comes with the territory. Learn from them and don’t make them twice.
Beware the Peter Principle.
Remember why you groom your own career in the first place: so you’re never the victim of an incompetent boss or a dysfunctional company. Becoming incompetent yourself would be the ultimate irony. Don’t succumb to the Peter Principle.
The best way to keep your career moving forward on your own terms is to be self-aware, know your limitations, and don’t be your own worst enemy. Come to think of it, those are good words to live by.