A frequent question I get is how do I advance my career? How do I get ahead in the organization? This is a question I asked myself a lot earlier in my career.
The first question to ask is what does it mean to you to ‘get ahead?’ Success is not always best measured by career accomplishment. I have learned that life is full of trade-offs. If you wish to advance your professional career, you are going to have to pay a price. The price is measured in short-term sacrifice for longer term goals, moving to where the opportunities are, pursuing advanced education and professional credentialing among others. These ‘prices’ are higher than many people are willing or able to pay. The effect is that they get trapped in roles where they can not realize or achieve their full potential.
When I was coming along, I was always looking up and ahead. I was the first in my family to earn a college degree. My parents did not understand college but they did recognize that people with college educations did better. In college I was exposed to people that had achieved much personal and professional success. I was inspired to replicate what these people had done so that I could enjoy the niceties of life that they had earned. When I started working, it seemed to me that given the chance, I could do better than the people ahead of me in the organization. I set myself to learning what they had done to become qualified for their roles and I started closing the gaps of experience, expertise, knowledge and credentialing. Before long, I was given consideration and started achieving my goals of reaching advanced roles in healthcare administration.
One of the things that occurred to me along this road is that the key thing organizations select and reward leaders for is cognitive skills. Decision making in my opinion is one of the most if not the most valuable skills a leader can develop. The better you are equipped to make decisions, the more responsibility the organization will bestow upon you. The larger the responsibility, the more substantial the risks and rewards associated with the decisions you are called upon to make. These risks and rewards are ultimately reflected in the remuneration for which you are eligible.
In my practice as an Interim Executive, I learned that the primary factor differentiating organizations that were doing well from those that ended up with challenges and transitions is less than optimal decision making. Show me an organization with challenges, operational difficulties and unacceptable financial results and I will show you leadership that has compiled a poor record as a result of questionable decision making.
As I have reflected upon this phenomenon, it has occurred to me that as we progress through our career and through increasingly responsible roles, the nature of our work changes. This has led to the development of my ‘Model of Career Progression.’
Early on in our career, the amount of ‘work’ we do is how we are measured. The work is usually measured in volume and it frequently requires a high level of technical skill but not much cognitive skill. For example, what field on what page do I access to find certain information? How many ‘activities’ can I complete in one day? I once had a senior leader ask me if I had reviewed certain accounting journal entries. I told him that I did not know what drawer the journal entries were stored in. I did not know where the journal entry pad was and I could not remember whether the debits went by the door or the window. What an outrageously stupid question! I have not reviewed journal entries since I was a Controller over thirty years ago. I am not paid to review journal entries, I am paid to assure that the organization’s financial statements are timely, materially accurate and that they fairly state the financial position and operating results of the organization. Can you see the difference?
As you advance in an organization, technical skill becomes less important and decision making skill becomes much more important. At higher levels of responsibility, you become more of a generalist because you are not evaluated based on how much ‘work’ you do. You are evaluated based on the results of your leadership, particularly as it relates to the outcomes of your decision making regardless of how much time and effort you expend in the process.
In my opinion, the development of cognitive ability is what will launch or limit your ability to advance in an organization. How do you develop cognitive ability? All of us are limited at some level by our basic intellect but I do not think that is what constrains most people. The reason is that people like Earl Nightingale and others have said that most of us rarely use more than 10% of our mental capacity so I am not buying the theory that people are not ‘smart enough’ to do higher level cognitive work. The way you develop your skills is to invest in yourself by seeking advanced education and professional credentialing in your area of expertise or interest. Continuous self study helps you to cement your position when given opportunities to function at higher levels. Experience in multiple situations is also helpful. You do not necessarily have to leave the organization to gain this experience. I have counseled numerous young people to seek opportunities in other ares of the organization to learn as much as they can about how the enterprise functions and to see where their areas of greatest interest or gifts lie.
There has never been a time in healthcare that more and better leadership is desparately needed. There are plenty of opportunities available for those who wish to advance their careers. All you have to do if you are one of these people is to start investing in yourself. I can assure you from my own personal experience that investment in yourself is the best investment you will ever make. I don’t care how cliche the phrase is. It has served me and a number of other very successful people I know extremely well.
If you would like to discuss any of this content or ask questions, I may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to engaging in productive discussion with anyone that is a practicing interim executive or a decision maker with experience engaging interim executives in healthcare.