Unmet Potential: How to successfully fall short and thrive

For every high potential, high performing individual climbing the career ladder, there are literally hundreds (dare I say thousands) that are stuck half way up. According to research by McKinsey and LinkedIn.org on Women in the Workplace, only 86 women for every 100 men get promoted to manager. Unfortunately, many of the rungs are broken for women and minorities. The reality is that there are many obstacles to success regardless of gender and race. We all know that its a pyramid and that the number of jobs at the top are limited but we were sold a dream. In fact, one of my biggest issues with our system is that we frustrate and disenfranchise 80% of our population each year by telling them that they are no longer the outstanding person that they have been told they were all their lives. This isn’t a new phenomena, but I think its time we all looked at it differently. It’s time to update the script on how we define success.

Like most of my colleagues, I was hired based on having been a high achiever all my life. Having successfully navigated college and grad school, I came to Exxon 30 years ago with high aspirations. I did all the things I’d been taught in my MBA program about successfully managing my career. There wasn’t a networking event I didn’t attend. I had mentors and sponsors. I focused on delivering high quality as well as a high quantity of work. I studied what our expectations were to be considered “better than most” and demonstrated the behaviors that were valued by my supervisors and managers. I knew everyone on the staffing and development committee making decisions about future assignments and they knew me. I gave generously to the United Way and celebrated every milestone event with my colleagues. The world was my oyster until one day I realized that I was stuck halfway up that ladder. With all that effort, it seemed that there wasn’t going to be another promotion in sight. I had hit a ceiling.

The point of this article is not to feel sorry for me, but for me to share how I learned to thrive despite my disappointment. The reasons why I didn’t make it while others did are not as important as how I responded to not having achieved what I knew was my potential. I believe there are seven things that can help us learn to fail successfully:

1. Remember that your performance assessment is not your identity. In a recent blog, Becoming a Mental Well-Being Champion, I mentioned having been assessed in every category except ‘needs improvement’. However, the most challenging feedback to receive was that I dropped out of the top performance category. It took years to reconcile that message with what I believed about my own performance and capabilities. There was a song by India Arie called “I Am Not My Hair” which I translated to “I am not my RG” at the time that really helped me to disassociate my identity from performance labels. I had to tell myself that I didn’t change, my level of contribution and commitment didn’t change nor did my IQ.

2. Broaden your comparator group for perspective. I have been able to maintain an extensive professional network externally which really allows me to recognize the quality of the workforce that we have within ExxonMobil. I’ve always been proud and fascinated by the intellectual and technical excellence that I rub shoulders with on a daily basis at work. While I have a lot of equally smart associations, it has not been lost on me that we have hired the some of the best and brightest around the world. My external network keeps me informed of how my peers are doing in other organizations and that often the grass is just as yellow elsewhere.

3. Admit that staying is a choice. Committing to a long-term career is like being in a marriage. It’s no surprise that some days you will question why you’re still here. At some point we all wonder whether we should stay or go. However, reflecting on why you joined and why you stayed is healthy. It reminds you that you are making a conscious choice to stay for whatever reasons that may be. That is empowering because no one wants to be a corporate slave. I acknowledged that the worse that could happen was that I might lose my job as the sole provider for my family. However, when I realized that even if that happened, we would have a place to go and I had marketable skills, that concern was no longer a threat to my peace.

4. Market your skills and abilities. I’ve done countless employee sessions on knowing what you bring to the table and establishing your personal brand. Most assignments later in your career come because someone knows what you can do and preparation meets opportunity. You can tell very little about someone’s background and experience based on their job title, so its important to let people know what you can do. Update your online profile. Develop a short bio. Put a more descriptive title in your signature. Develop an elevator speech so that you’re ready when someone asks “what are you working on these days?” You have to be your own salesperson at all times. Don’t leave that to your supervisor.

5. Redefine success based on your values and passion. At the end of the day, only you know what’s important to you and your family. Think about what brings you joy and/or satisfaction. What excites you about your chosen profession? There are always aspects of a job that are less exciting than others. However, you can lean into those aspects of your job that align with your passion and look at the rest of your to-dos as the cost of entry. As a recovering workaholic, I started to define success as having balance in my life so that I could enjoy the last years that my kids were home (e.g., eating dinner together, dropping them off at school, taking family trips). I realized that being “stuck” actually freed me from pressure at work that would have not allow me that precious time.

6. Set SMART goals that help you measure your progress. I’m still a type A personality that thrives on personal accomplishment, so setting personal goals helps to keep me engaged. We now have talent management processes in place for work goals and development goals, so its important to make those work for you. I know that I am deadline and goal driven, so having SMART goals works for me. It actually works for everyone (I’m just saying).

7. Celebrate your wins. You don’t have to wait for others to celebrate or appreciate you. Sometimes we have to encourage ourselves. Invite your boss to your celebration when you’ve accomplished a personal or professional goal. If not your boss, at least someone who has been part of your success. This is how we build community.

I may not be where I thought I would be at this point or even where I had the potential to succeed. Yet, I look back over my 32 years and I’m extremely proud of my career. I’ve helped a lot of organizations to achieve their business objectives and collaborated with wonderful people around the world to get things done. It may have seemed like I was stuck, but the view looks good from here. What are the possibilities for you with a different definition of success?

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