Over the course of my career, I’ve known a number of successful sales people who have unfortunately become formerly successful salespeople. One is someone I’ll call Harvey. He had been a great salesman, but lately his sales results have fallen and his income has dropped to roughly 50 percent of what it was just five years ago.
What happened? And what can you learn from Harvey’s story, so you can make your career last longer?
The skills that Harvey had amassed — skills that had propelled him to the top — began to stagnate. Even though the world kept spinning and moving, Harvey assumed that how he went about doing his job didn’t need to change. Unfortunately, he was gravely mistaken.
In his popular book, The Pursuit of Wow, prolific business author Tom Peters introduced me to the notion of thinking about your career as though it’s a physical asset. Machines, computers, trucks and even your clothing styles wear out over time, he noted, and so does your career. That’s why I think you should take preventive maintenance to keep your career from depreciating in value.
You need to recognize the harsh reality that about one-fifth of what you know, what you do, and how you do it will become useless next year and that you must replace that obsolete knowledge with new and relevant skills, knowledge and experience.
So I advise starting your own preventive maintenance program today. Here’s how:
Make yourself read books and newspapers more regularly. I’m always amazed at people who don’t stay current. They’re atrophying, and that can be deadly in the workplace.
When I travel around the world meeting with my employees, one of the questions I always ask is: “What have you been reading?” I’m really interested in what interests them. And, what people read provides me with a quick answer to that question. By the way, this isn’t a trick question. There’s no right answer.
There are, however, a couple of really wrong answers! Either: “I don’t have time to read or “I only read trade publications” fall into the wrong category. Both of these answers indicate a lack of curiosity and a lack of desire to grow. And, at my business, like most businesses, we absolutely need both.
Reading the latest business books is great, but it’s also important to become a student of the world. Know what’s happening in politics, the environment, sports, and the arts. Instead of just reading your normal newspaper, pick up a couple of papers that approach today’s issues from different and contradictory points of view. For example, try reading the opinion pages of both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Challenge yourself to try understanding and even appreciating the opposing editorial positions that each are taking.
Make time for fiction, too. Reading a good novel opens your mind, transports you to new and interesting places, and can spark your creativity. A couple of my favorites this past year were The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Both broadened my vocabulary and horizons and also provided me with a necessary break from the real world.
Network outside your comfort zone. Sure, you should join a professional group or organization focused on your present career and then call people in it who you believe you can learn from. But I also challenge you to reach out to someone in a field that might have nothing to do with yours.
You may be surprised how often people will gladly agree to spend a few minutes with you discussing their favorite topic — themselves! I guarantee you’ll walk away with a thought or an idea that you’ll be able to immediately put to use.
I personally commit to a couple of meetings per month (breakfast, lunch, or for a drink) with another CEO, entrepreneur, civic leader, or artist. I especially love the energy and passion that talented actors, singers, painters, and dancers bring to their work, because their energy and passion always rub off on me.
Don’t know any artists? Then go to gallery show, concert, or ballet and challenge yourself to strike up a conversation. In my experience, most artists are approachable and love discussing their work. Recently, I met with Victoria Morgan, the CEO and Artistic Director of the Cincinnati Ballet, to discuss how she unleashes talent. Every work place needs to look for and cultivate talented people, and you’ll be considered a better employee if you help your boss do it.
Enroll in a class or attend a seminar. What you learned in college was wonderful at the time. But for those of us in our 40s, 50s, or 60s, the world of our college years is almost unrecognizable when viewed through 2012 eyes. Every year the pace of change accelerates more rapidly, and the need to keep your skill set current becomes even greater.
You can certainly educate yourself on your own, and I encourage that. But there’s nothing like an outstanding instructor in a classroom with a group of enthusiastic, curious students.
The leader of my company’s corporate development group, Bob Poletti, recently went to a weeklong mergers & acquisitions program at the University of Chicago. He immersed himself learning with incredible professors, industry practitioners, and others like him who were eager to burnish their skills. Bob not only came away with a tremendous amount of new tools and knowledge, he now has an address book full of industry contacts to draw on when heading our acquisition program. “Not a day goes by where I don’t reach out to one of my classmates, by phone or by email, to share a thought, seek input, or simply brainstorm a little,” Bob told me. He benefitted from this week away and our company is receiving the benefits as well.
Serve on a community board or committee. First of all, it’s the right thing to do. Not-for-profit organizations need people like you to help them fulfill their missions. But serving on a board or committee can help your career, too. Some of my best leadership and learning experiences have come from working with smart and engaged people in my community activities.
When you join a board or committee, you may find yourself being thrust into areas outside of what you normally do for a living and interacting with people whose fields are far different than yours. I’ve found volunteering to be a wonderful venue for trying out new thinking and acquiring new skills. In your community work, you might find yourself involved in everything from marketing to fundraising to strategic planning to executive recruiting.
Try these four steps to keep your career from depreciating and to constantly push yourself out of your comfort zone. You'll learn things and gain self-confidence. The more you learn and grow, the more you’ll want to learn and grow, and the more valuable you’ll become to your employer.
By Steve Shifman
Steve Shifman is the President and CEO of Michelman, a global specialty chemicals company with facilities in the U.S., Belgium, Luxembourg, Singapore, and China.
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