JW on Tech

James Whittaker is a technology executive focused on making the web a better place for users and developers. He is a former Googler, former professor and former startup founder. Follow him on Twitter @docjamesw.

Work Hard You'll Get There Eventually (hint: no you won't)

Work Hard You'll Get There Eventually (hint: no you won't)

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Linked-In made the article sound so promising: Jack Welch tells graduating seniors how to succeed! It took only a few minutes to read, but left me scratching my head. Here is Jack Welch, the man Fortune magazine named as manager of the last century, dictating what it takes to succeed and here I am, a successful executive in this century, recognizing exactly none of it. Jack’s advice would not only have set me back a decade getting where I am now, it contradicts the career strategy that has taken me and many of my contemporaries to the top of our respective fields.

In a nutshell, what Jack suggests is to work hard and over deliver, impress your boss (with “shock and awe” no less) and make yourself valuable to your company. It makes a good sound bite, but this advice is, at best, a placebo to make you feel like you are being proactive in managing your career, and, at worse, a slow poison that will prolong your servitude to the corporate machine.

Let’s begin with his advice to work hard and over deliver. The truth is, working hard only makes you stand out when you are the only one doing it. Everyone who gets ahead works hard. It is not a strategy; it’s table stakes. Unless you live at the office, you will likely never be the first to arrive, the last to leave or the one who produces the highest volume of work. Your determination to out deliver your hard working colleagues is more likely to land you on a therapist’s couch than in the executive suite.

When everyone is working their ass off, working yours off harder or faster won’t get you ahead. It will stretch you thin and stress you out and this stress will, in turn, hold you back. The business world is chock full of hard working people who regularly over deliver and yet are categorically not succeeding. The intersection of overworked and underachieved is a horrible place to be.

Jack’s next exercise in futility is to impress your boss. Such obeisance may have worked last century but in this one it will do little more than consign you to the career of a follower. Mindlessly working hard to impress someone else will ensure that your success is always dependent on that someone else.

You may not even get that far. In today’s working environment, even figuring out who to impress isn't easy. Modern matrix organizations like Facebook, Netflix, Twitter and many other progressive and ultra-successful companies, have blurred the lines between manager and managed. This structure is quickly becoming the rule rather than the exception. At Google employees are actively encouraged to change projects, and thus manager, at 18 month intervals. Even the biggest of companies have peer committees to decide promotion and advancement. Who you report to has never meant less than it does now.

Managers are no longer the all-powerful career makers they were last century. In fact, many modern workers will have a hard time staying with a boss long enough to do more than share space during group meetings. I had 4 managers in 4 years at Microsoft and 2 managers in less than 3 years at Google. (Had I stayed I would have moved to my 3rd.) Exactly which one was I to spend all that time impressing?

Bosses have less power than they have ever had. In many companies, managers are just peers who take on some additional leadership and administrative tasks. Trying to impress them is not time well spent.

The most valuable role a modern manager plays is that of mentor. But time has changed this role too. In Jack’s day, you were stuck with your manager and everyone who could positively affect your career was within line of sight of your desk. The world is so much more accessible now and the most important person to your career may be on the other side of the planet connected to you only through email, video conference and social networking. Or, they may be someone with whom you have never had first-person contact. The world is smaller now and we have less need of our boss to tell us how to navigate it.

Of all the people who have helped my career and taken my shock and awe to heart, none of them have ever been my manager. Many are at or only slightly above or below my level. Most are peers and the majority aren't even inside my company at all. Had I ignored any of these mentors in favor of the person writing my annual review, I would not be where I am today.

Bosses come and go. Time spent impressing them is time you could be spending more intentionally to better your situation and yourself. You are who you learn from and now choosing who is entirely in your own hands.

Finally, we get to Jack’s last piece of advice: make yourself valuable to your company, and once again I advise you to ignore it. Like the person you report to, the company you work for has never mattered less.

Consider just how much Jack and his peers were tied to their employer in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Where else would they have gone? In the days before online job postings and career websites like Monster.com and Linked-In how would other employers have found out about them? Choice was limited and required substantial effort to exercise. Opportunities within one’s company were much more accessible than without.

Indeed, the world at large was harder to discover. Daily newspapers and weekly business magazines reported official press releases days to weeks old. How do you decide where the grass might be greener given only this limited information? Staying put, working hard and beating out your coworkers for promotion was the path of least resistance. Today it is, at best, the slow road and more likely to end directly at that dreaded intersection of overworked and underachieved.

The industry at large is now, quite literally, at your fingertips. Journalists compete to report up-to-the-second information about products companies haven’t even released yet. Corporate road maps are analyzed and reanalyzed and measured based on Twitter “follows” or Linked-In “connects.” It’s never been easier to scope-out and judge potential employers and if one of them aligns with your particular passions their recruiters are only an email, tweet or connect away. In fact, if you know how to work the industry, those recruiters probably have you on their radar already.

Company Kool-Aid is a dangerous drink. Gulp it down and you’ll have little value to the broader industry. Don’t let Jack buy you that drink. The rewards for gulping it down are more immediate but much smaller in the long run than sipping it carefully and keeping your options open. The pulse of the industry is far more important than the pulse of a company that may become less relevant in these fast moving times. Make yourself valuable to the broader industry and insulate yourself from your company’s mistakes and hard times. You must always remain valuable no matter what happens to your company. Just ask all those GE employees “Neutron Jack” downsized about where company loyalty lies. You can serve your company all you want. It may or may not serve you back. Your loyalty must lie with your own career in the industry where you've chosen to work.

Let’s put Jack Welch’s advice into perspective. He started work in 1960—the same year the Dallas Cowboys became an NFL expansion team, New Zealand got its first television station, John Lennon and Paul McCartney named their band, and Muhammad Ali won his first professional fight. Jack retired as CEO of the same company 40 years later, a time when the PC was still the most relevant computing device, Google was a start-up and Apple was taking loans from Microsoft.

Time changes a lot of things and career advice from Neutron Jack is like dating advice from your parents. Sorry dad, you lost me at “courting.” We live in a time where college dropouts have founded well-respected companies. Serial entrepreneurs from unranked schools are out innovating well-funded, hard-working corporate machines — and out earning corporate vice presidents. It’s time to update the career manual.

Outdated business rules will not only accomplish little in this modern world, they will interfere with your career progress. If you take this impressing your boss and over-delivery advice to heart you’ll very likely to be too busy (because you are working so hard) or too complacent (because your boss is telling you how great you are) to see an opportunity when it presents itself. You’ll be blinded by the feeling that you are already doing the right thing when, in fact, you should be consciously seeking out the actual right thing.

The industry has changed. Corporate culture has changed. Careers are no longer something we have; careers are something we must own. Anyone can have a job, but a career is something more. Careers are at once more meaningful and more enjoyable. They are something that can make a huge difference to our self worth, our net worth and our work-life balance. They don’t rely on bosses and employers. They rely on you.

Success isn't easy. If it was everyone would have a constantly ascending career path. Don’t make success harder by following advice for a bygone era. Today, success requires a modern perspective on the industry and actively managing your skills and relationships.

Leave all that other advice in the museum where it belongs.

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  • Fantastic article, I couldn't agree more. I enjoy the fact that one's job is no longer the definition of who you are; you are no longer just one of the sheep in the industry. You have the ability to show how valuable you are on a global scale, by showcasing your skills and ambitions with a plethora of new mediums that did not previously exist in Jack's era. I've personally noticed the fall of the importance of standard education. More and more job descriptions have detailed a need for a specific skillset, not a specific degree or schooling level. This makes certain careers more accessible to the many, or to the skilled, instead of to the privileged.  

  • So I ask you a question: How many hours a week do you work ? And include in that the work you take home, the e-mails and phones you answer after you punch out, etc.

    Then, how many days a week you work (Treehouse recently shared an article about how they're working 4 days a week).

    Once you answer that, ponder if you're really "not" working hard.

  • sounds like you have sour grapes that you cannot get ahead

  • This Memo obviously only goes to well educated, well connected, long employed 10%-earners.  

    Anybody else: Here is your minimum wage, see ya tomorrow, you have to work two hours more.

  • We are constantly lied to about job opportunities and how to get them by upper management so that they can take advantage of us. Why are they telling everyone to go to college when there are no jobs? Why are they telling everyone to work hard when they admonish hard work?

  • Wow!!! simply blew my mind. Thanks a lot for such an amazing, brave and stirring article. Saving and Sharing.

  • Jack lied about almost everything all the time.  He only said what was expedient and self-serving.  His advice was not for the benefit of the listener. He was a figurehead who lied to advance himself via GE. He deceived others so that both he and GE could exploit them.

    Jack was an education.  Having watched his performance, we learn to distrust everyone in a similar position.  The society is faltering due to this.

  • So what's the alternative? Sounds like: don't provide value to your company, don't care what your boss thinks, and underdeliver. I can't wait to hire an employee like that...

  • Career by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1957)

    The pastors claimed that Galileo

    was an unreasonable man,

    but time has made it crystal clear

    that lack of reason is a good sign.

    A scholar from that same era

    who was as smart as Galileo

    knew that the earth was turning round

    but he'd his family on hand.

    Riding a coach, with near and dear,

    after he'd done the traitor's act

    he thought of making a career

    but he had ruined it, in fact.

    Nobody wished to risk, for knowledge,

    but scholar Galileo did,

    the greatest man he was acknowledged...

    "Careerist" he was indeed!

    Long live the notion of career

    if it implies making the grade,

    like the career of Shakespeare,

    Homer, Pasteur, Tolstoy the Great.

    I wonder why they were trodden.

    A gift will always be a gift!

    The slanderers are now forgotten

    while those who were slandered live.

    Those who explored the stratosphere,

    the docs that perished for the good, --

    they were "seeking a career",

    and I should like to follow suit!

    Their holy faith in their idea

    inspires me with fortitude.

    So I'm following a career

    without trying to follow it.

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