Nine years ago, I was teaching an undergraduate business course at Westminster College near Salt Lake City. Most of the students were seniors, and toward the end of the semester, we were having a conversation about careers. One of my students asked me to reflect on my career and what was the one piece of advice could I give them based on my experience. I thought for a minute and then said, “Always remember that you only get one story”. Prompted by a “what does that mean” look, I added, “Pursue your dreams, know yourself and use that knowledge to become a more conscious person and leader, take thoughtful risks, stay relevant, and most of all, remember that you only get one story so make it interesting. You don’t get any do-overs.”
Over the years I’ve done a lot of both formal and informal business and career coaching and mentoring. My dad was a teacher before he turned to a business career and I’ve always believed I have taught in my DNA. In my many conversations with people about their work aspirations, I always start with a conversation about the themes that define the narrative of their career. The first response is typically a regurgitation of a timeline of job titles. Their homework is to go back to the timeline and examine the “why” behind each decision and to find the common themes that lie beneath those decisions. Those themes are the key to discovering the answers to the three most important questions everyone should reflect on and be able to answer with certainty:
- Where do you find the most meaning and purpose in your work?
- How will you stay relevant in the face of continuous change?
- How can you make a difference that matters to more than just an audience of one? More recently, adding what will be your “small dent in the universe?” to quote the late Steve Jobs.
When I asked myself those questions again seven years ago the results were life-changing. My answer to the first question emerged as I uncovered the themes that formed the narrative of my 30+ year career: my passion for coaching and mentoring; a deep curiosity about why people do what they do (which has always been my source of energy for innovation and challenging the status quo); and my drive to create and build, versus maintain and manage. I found the answer to the third question in the joy of helping people through one of their most significant career transitions—moving, from individual contributor to people manager.
Answering the second question was the toughest because I had to set aside the ego and identity that comes with “I was CEO of this” and “I was a vice-president of that,” and see my career experiences for what they really were—a history on which I could build, not laurels on which I should rest. That shift in mindset gave me the courage and conviction to invest in a five-year ‘walkabout’ in the shoes of today’s team leaders, rather than returning to a senior leadership role in a large, global company. I also recognized that walking in those other shoes would only be truly valuable if I complemented that experience with a deeper understanding of the people leading today’s teams. So, I took a deep dive into the fields of human motivation, employee engagement, and team effectiveness, earning a doctorate in the process. My investment in remaining relevant and keeping my story interesting has enabled me to pursue work in which I find purpose and social good as I inspire leaders to craft extraordinary teams and write books like Team Relationship Management: The Art of Crafting Extraordinary Teams.
As our careers and lives progress, we all face the questions of purpose, relevance, and legacy. I’ve found that the people who are the most conscious about answering those three questions tend to be more successful by their own definition of success, and happier and enjoy greater well-being.
They spend little time lamenting what could have been or the glory days that lay behind them. They are too busy writing interesting new chapters in their life narrative, being conscious every day that we only get one story and that there are no do-overs.
This article is based upon excerpts from my new book, Team Relationship Management: The Art of Crafting Extraordinary Teams