David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Assessing the Risks of the Next Step

post # 166 — August 18, 2006 — a Careers post

You’ll read in lots of places that, in business, the right strategy is to “fail often, fail fast, fail cheap.” That way, you learn, innovate, and develop.

It’s good advice for an organization, but not necessarily for an individual. While I like to be encouraging, urging people to stretch to fulfill their capabilities and dreams, the truth is that the world can be an unforgiving place, and you do have to choose your “next challenge” with care.

For example, if you are aiming for a big promotion, you had better make sure you want that responsibility before you try to move up. If it turns out not to work out well (for any reason), a company will most likely NOT put you back where you came from, but move you out. (It’s happened to me.)

Actually, the same is true when companies take on new client work and deals: take one on that runs into trouble, and you don’t go back to the market reputation you had before, but to one with a big black mark. (That’s happened to me, too.)

Be sure to think through what it means to move up in an organization, because it is hard to go back. The higher you climb, the more responsibilities you get that you simply didn’t know existed when you were a naive junior. With promotion comes incredible responsibility and narrow career choices.

Life doesn’t get any easier as you move up the ladder. All you ever do as you progress is trade one set of problems for another, hopefully higher class, set of problems. One set of stresses for another.

Am I counseling anyone to not be ambitious? No, what I’m saying is that you don’t accept or pursue “promotions” or “challenges” “or “glamorous client assignments” just because they are there. They’ve got to be the right ones for you.

You’ve got to go through life recognizing that, if you fail at new challenges, you’ll have rebuilding to do.You have to weigh both the benefits of succeeding and the risks of failing before you decide.

As you progress, life does get more interesting, but it doesn’t get easier.


Eric Boehme said:


Two things jumped out at me when I read this post. The world can be an unforgiving place and that life doesn’t get easier as you move up the ladder.

I encourage people to take a hard look at where on the ladder they want to be and also where they need to be. One rung more and you might be out of your area of passion. Failing to climb far enough never gets you into your area of passion.

posted on August 18, 2006

Peter Macmillan said:

David My own career decisions in recent times have become rather more calculated than in the past. I wonder whether this kind of change is worth thinking more about. Like a lot of professionals, I did my fair share of twisting and turning along the way – even brushing once or twice against the prospect of becoming a professional musician! – but looking back there is an unmistakable (even if unintended) logic to the path I have taken to this point. As you have noted before, sometimes this logic is only discernable in retrospect. But therein lies what, for me, is the key to planning the next move along my career path at my present stage in life. The more I see a pattern emerging from my past experiences (achievements and failures) the better able I am or should be to choose my next steps. Early in my career I was pretty much falling into this role and falling into that one. It was experimental, even though at the time I may have thought there was some coherence to it. Today I know myself much better, and while I may not be exactly what I thought I would be when I became a “grown up,” I have gained a realistic and increasingly reliable understanding of what I can and can’t do and of what I like and don’t like to do. I recall a previous article you wrote about the career mistakes we make never being permanent. Certainly, your present post implies that you have made some howlers in your time, just as the rest of us have in our times. The ability to bounce back and recover from these mistakes is of course much greater when we are younger, but less so as we get older. I always suspected that that was why you couched your ideas in terms of “advice to young professionals.” Getting older means the rules of life – and of career planning – begin to change. The fact is, the more mature we become the wiser we should be and therefore the less we need to rely on the accommodations that life was willing to give us early on. We are expected to walk a much finer line than before, and indeed this is what we cannot avoid having to do. Is this the central theme of your post? That as the path gets narrower, so more care is needed to ensure that we step in the right places? If we have a reasonably long career history – be it checkered or plain – then we have a responsibility to make the best use of it we can. Younger people don’t have such a resource, and therefore they need (and should be encouraged to adopt) different strategies. For myself, the way I might think about a promotion today is very different (more cynical/pragmatic/nostalgic (?)) than when I was younger (more enthusiastic/experimental/self-deluded (?)). It certainly is a different game to play, but I kind of got bored with the old one anyway. Peter

posted on August 18, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Peter, thanks for a thoughtful contribution. Yes, my experience is like yours – that the way we make decisions changes as life unfolds, and we weigh things differently.

In this particular post, I was trying to continue our ongoing discussions about making career choices. As you pointed out, one of my themes was based on an earlier article (a chapter called “No Regrets” in my 1997 book TRUE PROFESSIONALISM) in which I offered the thought that:

“Remember, planning your career is up to you, not your firm. If your new career path doesn’t work out, the results will be a lot more painful for you than for your firm. You should be a lot pickier than they in deciding what you’re going to do. Don’t sell: Buy.”

There is a risk in career discussions of lapsing into overly upbeat conclusions about passion and strengths, and I’m as guilty of that as anyone else. But as we continue our discussins here, I wanted to introduce a note of balance – that considering the downside matters a lot in career decisions, and must not be glossed over.

New readers may want to check out some other Careers blogs in my Archive (which is organized by subject.) Particularly relevant ones are: the fact that we are remembered more for our mistakes than our triumphs (The Disproportionality Principle, http://davidmaister.com/blog/99/) and, as you stress here, Peter, the need to keep working at understanding and knowing yourself: so you can make better career choices as life unfolds – and as you evolve. (Can We Copy Our Heroes?)

posted on August 19, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

C’mon you guys.

The key is whether the next step is the right thing for you to do. The concept of ‘failure’ shouldn’t be a part of this decision. We all make mistakes, and it is how we respond to them that counts. If you never take on that next big opportunity, or exciting project because you’re too concerned about it going wrong – then to me, that is when you failed.

If you are living by your principles (to hark back to an earlier blog discussion), then you will be on the right path, and you do your best, period. (‘Best’ means best in all aspects, not just the technical or managerial aspects of the job / opportunity / engagement / etc.)

posted on August 20, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

I think one of the issues that large firms have relates to the financial incentive that they apply to management positions. The result is often to pull excellent technical people into people management positions for which they are not suited.

The result is a double negative – the loss of a technically great consultant and the addition of a poor manager.

I don’t know what the solution is in this case. Maybe the best option is for those people to move to a smaller firm that has fewer people-management requirements. At least that way they are not causing harm by being an incompetent manager, and they can focus on being technically brilliant.

I suppose they could stay where they are, but I think that over time, the type of work that they are suited for will change. Using David’s analogy, they may have entered a firm that does “pharmacy” work, but after 10 or 15 years of this, their technical knowledge may turn them into a brain surgeon. Not much good if the firm is still set up to deliver prescription pills.

No doubt there are technically brilliant people who are also great people managers, but aside from my personal observations in this area, there are fundamental personality traits that would suggest that it this combination of skills is unlikely.

On a side not I would like to thank David for “normalising” occasional career blunders by talking about the challenges that he has experienced over the years. It’s easy to imagine that people who have risen to the top of their profession have climbed with mountain-goat-like surefootedness up the mountainside to success, so it’s nice to know that you can make it without being 100% on target every time, although this is perhaps not the intended effect given the theme of the article!

I know that I started down the people management path some years ago. I recently backed out, realising that it was not my strength. It took a while for me to persuade myself that this was the case, such is the peer-pressure to “make it” to management. Now I have a medium term goal to work in a smaller firm, or perhaps even start my own. We’ll see how that goes. As Bono says “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

posted on August 20, 2006

David (Maister) said:

I’m with Tim on this one.

I DO think there are tempting promotion options -including the one he gives, of promotion to managing after a successful career of doing – need to be carefully examined before you assume its a good career move – or one that you are ready for.

And Duncan, you and I may differe for once on this. It’s Not JUST about our own reactions to failure, but the reactions of those around us (which was the point of my blog post.)

When I first accepted a supervisory repsonsibility I really overestimated two things. First, my own maturity and preparation to perform the role at that stage of my life, and second, how much support and understanding I would receive if I ran into difficulties.

If I had understood those things better, I would have postponed accepting supervisory roles or found another way to make a career path. Which, as Tim say, is not always offered by many organizations.

posted on August 20, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

I understand.

Just to be a real pain, let me say that other people’s possible future reactions to your possible future failure seems so contingent (and out of your control), that it doesn’t bear thinking about for very long.

As you said, David:

You should be a lot pickier than they [the organization / firm] in deciding what you’re going to do.

I think this applies to deciding where to work as well.

If the problem is about not recognizing whether you will be supported, then that’s a different kind of mistake. That’s one of the several interesting themes emerging from this post – that your awareness of the reality around you in the firm / organization is very important.

I’d be interested in everyone’s comments on ‘picking up the reality’ around them.

posted on August 21, 2006