From Success to Significance: How Will Your Enduring Influence Take Shape?

Here’s what you’ll discover:  After a life-long career of organizational success and increasing leadership, you can repackage your experiences, beliefs, and passions to create a brand that will keep you uniquely in demand.

A client of mine is the CEO of a $1 billion+ global consumer products company (out of discretion, I cannot name names, you understand. But if you’re the kind of person who has bought things, I promise, you have his product in your house). Since I’ve known him, he has spent the bulk of his weeks and months traveling the planet, visiting his company’s locations, meeting with his employees face-to-face, and calling them by name. He is legendary for busting out the possibility walls of an already thoroughly established brand when he took over the company. But he is beloved because he never forgets that his company is about the people. Building a sense of belonging for his “tribe” is the organizing why in his career for the last 20 years.

He’s on the cable business shows. His smiling, friendly face is all over the company websites. He’s unforgettable. For now. But not forever. He knows that his influence has a shelf life. He’s thinking ahead and has embraced the inescapable fact that eventually he’ll retire from this company, long before he’s ready to retire from his life-long career of making a difference.

Being ex-CEO of this company will be attention-getting for only a few years after his retirement party. But he knows that if he doesn’t take fresh, new action in building his relevance now, his influence will start to fade before he’s ready for it to. Being ex-CEO of anything for very long eventually stops being impressive. Only Jack Welch has been able to dine off the table of his last corporate gig for years on end. And even he has had to continuously add fresh value and insight to the business conversation as the decades have rolled out.

My client’s doing it right. He knows that his identity isn’t the corporate name and logo on his last business card. The value that he has brought to his corporate role can be converted to fresh value that he will bring to his post-corporate life. And he’s giving himself the necessary time to identify and develop it. By the time he’s ready for that last big party at headquarters, his next life phase will already be running apace. And the baton is easily passed from his past self to his new self.

Those Damn 10,000 Hours

Back in 2008, Malcolm Gladwell introduced to popular attention the 10,000 hour theory, in his book Outliers. Roughly speaking, the idea was that if you invested 10,000 hours dedicated to the practice of any single focus in life, you will achieve extraordinary mastery of that thing. And your path of area superiority (and presumably fame and fortune) would be set.

For Baby Boomer and late Gen X readers of Outliers, there was only one conclusion to be drawn from that premise: “Well, that does it for me.” Our theoretical 10,000 hours of developmental and practice time were filed under That Ship Has Sailed. If we had only known about those 10,000 hours earlier, we wouldn’t have spent our after-school time watching Brady Bunch reruns, while power-chowing Chips Ahoy.

Since we may not have devoted our allotted 10,000 hours to repeatedly practicing guitar scales or tennis volleys (or whatever it is that geniuses do to software that makes our computers go), we’re tempted to dismiss the value of what we did do over any of the 10,000 hours from our past.

But, in fact, we were awake and aware during 10,000 hours (rumor has it: even more).  And now it’s up to us to recapture the value of that time we invested in focusing on our learning and professional development. Find a way to make fresh, cohesive sense of what we’ve done, thought, experienced, and changed our minds about in the decades that have gone before. And then be able to articulate it to a new community of clients and customers who will benefit from what we have to offer.

Your past has to count for something. From your position of security and maturity, you get to say what it is. That position – that sustained perspective, belief, or cause – will be the thing that differentiates your continuing contributions to society.  And makes you the one whom people will call first when they need your rare and valuable gifts. (The phrase rare and valuable comes from Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which we’ll revisit frequently in this blog.)

What You Lack in Credentials,
Make Up For in Vision

It seems that no matter how accomplished we become in our first-phase professional lives, that thing we want to do next demands a credential we don’t have. Darn it.

I heard from another client of mine last week. He is a retired general. We’ve worked together now for several years as he’s transitioned his considerable military experience into a brand that resonates in the civilian world. It’s been a profound honor working with him as we develop new ways he can articulate his transferrable value to a way of life and leadership that he left behind him when he enlisted as a teenager.

Despite his considerable achievements in the military, not to mention a leadership style that is directly responsible for the safe returning home of thousands of men and women at the end of their deployment, this transition to the civilian world made him uncertain of his value. Finding his way back into this way of life that is native to most of us is a “hero’s journey” on a scale that only a handful of people can fully appreciate. My role has been to help him see himself through fresh, respectful eyes of a grateful, civilian nation – focusing on the unique leadership contributions he can bring to the rest of us.

And then to help him articulate that new brand so the rest of us get it – and him – quickly. But he has had to believe in that brand first. And that has been a one-step-at-a-time proposition.

When he called me the other day, there was an energized desire in his voice that I hadn’t heard before. He had discovered an opening for a leadership position that he would be perfect for. And he was allowing himself to feel the excitement.

Only one problem: According to the search committee’s announcement, he was short one rank. Don’t that beat all? Even in these rare circles where the credentials and qualifications become narrower and narrower, people are faced with the challenge of discovering that they still might not be enough.

He is a contender though. Because of all the work he has done developing his brand based on the things he’s most passionate about, he now has a published record of being an evangelist for the very principles that this new organization is espousing. Wayne Gretsky famously advised, “Skate to where the puck will be.” My friend’s personal development investment over the years has been compelling him forward so that just when this ideal organization whacked its puck, my friend is there to meet it.

I advised him to include all the chapters and articles he’s been writing over time. But, in addition to that, include a cover letter that speaks to the search committee’s vision of the ideal outcome – not just his credentials. All the other candidates, especially the ones who have the rank, will focus on their achievements and accomplishments. And they will all sound alike.

But my friend will be speaking to that intersection of the search committee’s true desire for the future of its organization, and the heart and vision that he can bring to the job.

Will he get the job? Gosh, I hope so. But one thing is for sure: He is so good, he will be impossible to ignore.

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