Successful Execs Create Their Own Opportunities

Job satisfaction has been on the decline since 1995 and has hit an all-time low, according to a survey by the Conference Board.

The increased pace of business, greater demands for results and less time for recreation are among the factors bothering employees, the Conference Board found. “As technology transforms the workplace — accelerating the pace of activities, increasing expectations and productivity demands and blurring the lines of work and play — workers are steadily growing more unhappy with their jobs,” says Lynn Franco, director of the New York-based forecasting organization’s Consumer Research Center.

But employees may be more pessimistic because they sense that something even more profound is happening: They’re starting to believe that recent changes taking place in the job market are structural, not cyclical.

Whether this is true remains to be seen, but like thousands of professionals, you may be feeling discouraged right now. However, you shouldn’t be pessimistic. The seeds of career success are often planted in difficult times like these. It’s possible that you can use this period of transition and uncertainty to move your career ahead faster than you imagined.

Researching Success Factors

We have reached this conclusion after years of researching the reasons why some executives are more successful than others. Our findings stem from analyzing a database of 1.2 million executives, surveying more than 2,000 senior managers and personally interviewing more than 300 of them. We identified numerous actions that executives can take to ensure that a cyclical economic downturn doesn’t cause a permanent career depression.

One powerful behavioral pattern we identified that can lead to greater success is the ability to overcome the “Permission Paradox.” This is the Catch-22 that says you can’t get the job without the experience, and you can’t get the experience without the job. This obstacle is particularly frustrating during an employer’s job market, but successful professionals have learned how to create opportunities regardless of the shape of the job market.

Whether you’re employed or in transition, an effective way to deal with the paradox is to develop and make the most of relationships with mentors. Other professionals “barter,” or swap their skills or knowledge, to achieve goals that will lead to career success. For instance, you may have the energy, skills, time and desire to achieve an important goal, but you don’t know the right people. By finding someone with the access to key people and the desire, but not the time or skills, you may be able to form a partnership. While partnering with someone may mean giving up credit in the short term, you’ll gain critical experience that can help expand your career in the long run.

Not Always on the Fast Track

We also learned that executives who have had extraordinary careers aren’t necessarily “fast track, never miss a step” individuals. Not all of them knew what they wanted to do at an early age and then followed up with detailed strategies to achieve milestones to success. Quite the contrary, extraordinary executives often have taken paths that veered between significant advancement and unexpected setbacks. What distinguished these individuals was their ability to consistently turn setbacks into opportunities. They used mistakes and failures to redirect their careers into areas that better fit their strengths, passions and circumstances.

Surprisingly, many executives who have had extraordinary careers took the initiative to create career transitions, taking what others would perceive as a lateral move or a step backward to get on a path they felt was better suited to their strengths and passions.

Consider Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks Corp. His success is well known. What’s not that well known is how he began his extraordinary career. In 1975, after graduating from Northern Michigan University, Mr. Schultz won a spot in Xerox Corp.’s prestigious sales-training program. Friends and family were excited, even envious, of his wonderful opportunity.

But despite tremendous early success at Xerox, Mr. Schultz felt something was missing in his professional life. Clearly, he had a natural talent for sales, but he wasn’t passionate about working in a large, complex organization like Xerox. So to the astonishment of his supporters, Mr. Schultz gave up the pay and prestige of a promising sales career at Xerox to pursue his passion of building a company. Ultimately, he achieved greater success and satisfaction than he possibly could have in his initial career choice.

Only through a career transition — planned or unplanned — do some executives discover what they’re ideally suited for. Even within a bleak job market, they find ways to move their careers forward. If you have experienced a setback, you’re in good company. It’s your ability to rebound from it that will be key to your building a successful career.

By Richard A. Smith and James M.Citrin