Managing Oneself

9 Mar

On a train to Philadelphia to celebrate my 42nd birthday with friends.  It is times like these that I tend to reflect on my life’s trajectory – where I’ve been and where I want to go.  What do I want to have accomplished this time next year?  5 years from now?  When is a good time to take that yearlong sabbatical to travel the U.S. and capture its diversity through art and prose?  In life, as in business, the difference between success and failure is that success finds opportunity (even in the face of adversity) and failure expects opportunity to find us.

“We live in an age of unprecedented opportunity: If you’ve got ambition and smarts, you can rise to the top of your chosen profession, regardless of where you started out.  But with opportunity comes responsibility.”  So begins Peter Drucker’s 1999 Harvard Business Review article Managing Oneself.  I was first exposed to the article in 2009 in my first MBA class – Organization Behavior.  At the time, I was undergoing (and continue refining) a “lifestyle makeover” as I transitioned from public to private sector, and from employee to self-employed consultant.  The premise is simple, and yet profound – successful careers (and I dare say fulfilling lives) are not planned.  They develop when we are prepared for opportunities (and the inevitable setbacks) because we know our strengths and weaknesses, our method of work and our values.  “Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person – hardworking and competent but otherwise mediocre – into an outstanding performer.”

I encourage everyone to read the article – here are a few of the insights that stood out for me:

  • We hear a great deal about the midlife crisis.  At 45, after doing the same kind of work for 20 years, we are very good at, but fail to derive a challenge or satisfaction from, our daily routine.  Managing oneself increasingly leads to more than one “career.”  Another excellent read is The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss.  A must-have for everyone.  An excellent guide to taking back control of your life (turn off the Crackberry), managing YOUR time, discovering your passions and living life to the fullest.
  • Know your weaknesses as well as your strengths.  As a consultant, I often tell clients it is more important to know which opportunities to decline than which to pursue.
  • Far too many people – especially people with expertise in one area – are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.
  • It takes more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than to improve from first-rate to excellence.
  • Know how you learn (reading, listening or doing) and how you work (alone or in teams, leader, manager or subordinate).  There is no one right way, just a right fit.
  • A person’s values must be compatible with the organization’s values – which are different from ethics.  Both the individual and the organization must be honest with what values really matter – an organization that claims to value long-term innovation but consistently focuses on short-term profit will find itself in constant conflict.  Get some perspective and read Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life by Eugene O’Kelly, former CEO of KPMG.

So why did I start with such a “soft” subject?  This blog is supposed to be about business, finance and economics, and not this touchy-feely garbage, right?  Well, even though most of us “understand” the value of “know thyself,” very few of us take the time to make an honest self-assessment.  Then we wonder why there is constant conflict in our life, or why, despite our best efforts, we meet with one failure after the next.  I’m amazed at the number of executives I meet who acknowledge the value of culture and emotional-intelligence, and then create a business environment counter to the values and goals of the organization.

I hope we will find a better understanding of business by first understanding ourselves.

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