The 15 Best Things My Career Clients Ever Said, Part One

by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLab®

IN 40 YEARS I’ve spent 40,000 hours helping business people to maximize their careers. My clients have been great teachers. Each has brought something unique, valuable, and special about the workplace, human nature, persistence, or life itself. Several thoughts stand out as memorable. These thoughts are quite simple. But simple is often hard.

1. I create relationships; the relationships create the job offers.
Seemingly without effort, Randall had three job offers quickly, which is rare. When I asked why, he said his friendships were very important to him, so he spent a lot of time developing them. Not Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn friendships, though they can be valuable. But real face-to-face personal relationships. Close personal ties were apparently his top priority in life.

This may be the single biggest learning of my life’s work, and I re-learn it daily. Not early, but late in your career, it won’t matter where you went to school (except that you need a degree). Your friendships will deliver your biggest victories, and lack of friendships your biggest defeats. Without genuine face-to-face, heart-to-heart relationships, 2,000 connections on LinkedIn may not matter.

All things being equal, people will buy from a friend. All things not being quite so equal, people will still buy from a friend. If you’re not going to make friends, resign yourself to dealing with neutrals and enemies.
~ Mark McCormack, author of “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School,” and founder of IMG, a global leader in sports, fashion and media operating in 25 countries.

Experience tells me that 80-90% of superb jobs come from friends and acquaintances, and from their friends and acquaintances. Not from online job postings. One of my first questions to career changers or potential consultants is, “How big is your network?” Those who say, “Really small,” or “I don’t have one,” are at a disadvantage.

2. Don’t confuse your real worth with your net worth.
It’s easy to think more money equals more happiness, and people in career transition without a salary often feel bad about themselves. Truth is, your real worth is not tied to your job title or income. You have intrinsic value as a person, a remarkable one-of-a-kind miracle. This is a theme of my life’s work.

“The circumstances of your life have uniquely qualified you to make a contribution. And if you don’t make that contribution, nobody else can make it.” ~ Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.” ~ As quoted in The Life and Work of Martha Graham, by Agnes DeMille

Stints of unemployment, if not too long or severe, can get people back in touch with their families, friends, fitness, and outside interests. Three weeks after a job loss, career changers often hear their colleagues say, “You look so much more relaxed, so much happier.”

3. I just gave my boss a good listening to.
It’s easy to forget that bosses are real people, too, and that managing one’s boss is part of any job description. In fact, in times of conflict, high growth, corporate merger or acquisition, or downsizing, managing your boss can be your only job. The Harvard Business Review website (hbr.org) has several good articles on this topic.

Listening blends nicely with Stephen Covey’s 5th rule from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In my own case, I’ve never lost advantage in business situations by listening too much. My personal rule is, “Listen 80%, talk 20%. And make sure your 20% is brief and adds value.”

4. Make the large problems into small problems, and make the small problems go away!
A super-successful regional sales manager for a building materials company put together some to-dos for his team who were “not getting stuff done.” This simple rule-of-thumb struck me as absolutely correct. It’s so obvious as to be easily overlooked. I use it any time I feel stumped, defeated, or overwhelmed. On a related note, my friend and mentor, Joe Sabah says, “You don’t have to be good to start, but you do have to start to be good.”

5. I want to manage my career; I don’t want my career to manage me.
I see more and more business people locked into brutal 80-hour workweeks. Often they’re being both efficient and effective, so prioritizing or time-saving efforts are useless; and they’re not allowed to hire additional help. What’s worse, the 80-hour workweek prevents networking or exploring new opportunities.

Tamara had gotten into white water with her boss, whose impossible expectations could never be met. She realized that when your career is running your life, it can damage you physically, emotionally, and spiritually. She resigned her position to get back in control of her life, and happiness has been a byproduct.

Quitting isn’t always an option, and sometimes it’s the worst option. Usually it’s best to take two tracks, to tune up your present situation, while at the same time getting yourself market-ready. I’ve helped rescue many business people from 80-hour death sentences. Sometimes you can negotiate better terms with your current employer; often you must look elsewhere. The first step is to find one or two hours each week to further your own interests. (See my larger take on this: Too Much Success Can Kill You.)

6. I owe it to my people to tell them what I see.
I’ve met few great managers in my career, which is odd, since I’ve interviewed hundreds. Many fall down when it comes to giving honest feedback, or having difficult conversations. Others ignore poor performance, or sweep it under the carpet. Some promote non-performers into higher-level jobs or transfer them to new departments or divisions as a way of avoiding conflict.

As a matter of principle, this great manager had the courage to be honest with his direct reports, whether his observations were positive or negative.

I’ve picked up the pieces after hundreds of company terminations. One of the toughest cases is where someone is fired suddenly and unexpectedly after 10, 15, or 20 happy years with a company, thinking their performance is stellar. A new boss comes in and ranks the worker honestly; they don’t measure up, in fact they’re failing badly. This is sad and can be tragic for the suddenly unemployed. What happened?

What happened is that managers along the way weren’t truthful. They let poor performance slide. I’ve felt bad at many outplacement meetings, but the surprise firing is one of the worst. And potentially the most violent. It’s not okay to blast others, but you may owe it to those working with and for you to tell them what you see.

7. There are 1,000 steps in a cardiac surgery, and 1,000 ways to kill a cardiac patient.
A heart surgeon said this, and Wow! It got my attention. “The point is,” the surgeon said, “you can’t skip steps, or eliminate them. If you do, the patient dies. Some steps must be completed in 10 seconds, or the patient dies.” That’s not much margin for error.

Many activities in life require checklists. Flying an aircraft is one; jobhunting is another. A large number of job seekers throw an overnight resume together and race out into the job market, not realizing that it’s a step-by-step process, beginning with career evaluation and focus. High achievers, what I call my “type-AAA” players, are among the worst. They’re doers and “drivers” by nature; so it’s foreign to them to stop long enough to think and plan. They’re good at getting a job really fast; trouble is, it’s often the wrong one.

In my work I see people succeeding well and failing badly, and I came up with this maxim: “There are 1,000 ways to ruin your life.” Literally a thousand. Maybe more. Just look at the news. No day goes by without high-profile bankruptcy, crime, fraud, self-caused accidents, or scandals of infidelity—to name a few. This got me thinking. If there are 1,000 ways to ruin your life, not ruining your life is a task. It involves being alert: seeing red flags and avoiding hazards. It involves concentration, commitment, and above all, a clear vision of where you want to go. Muhammad Ali said:

“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

8. I wasn’t doing it for the money; I was doing it because I loved it.
A young Internet entrepreneur who had just sold his business for $32 million hired me to advise him. His question was, “Where do I go from here?” As he told the story of his business skyrocketing, he said, “I wasn’t doing it for the money. I was doing it because I loved it.”
I’ve heard this theme many times from top leaders with big salaries and long severance packages. Their huge successes didn’t come from the pursuit of money. The money came from the passionate pursuit of their dreams. The reverse is also true: sometimes no amount of money is enough.

Bernhard, a team-oriented leader, joined a Fortune 500 company as Vice President of Finance. Collaborative by nature, his motto was, “We all win together.” Two days into his tenure, the Vice Chairman of the company told him, “Bernhard, you’d better be watching your back; they’ll be out to get you.” Bernhard didn’t immediately know what that meant, but it was a red flag that someting was fatally wrong. Within a few weeks he learned that the company’s culture was “fear-greed-and-fear.”

The senior leaders were motivated by money and only money, at all costs, and they motivated the workers by fear. Everyone in the organization was highly paid, but terrified of losing their jobs. Morale was zero. After six months I was worried about Bernhard, acutally thought the job would literally kill him. He wanted to resign, but couldn’t because of a $60,000 relocation package and signing bonus he didn’t want to return. After a year, they offered him a $600,000 retention bonus. He resigned and left the bonus on the table, because the culture of fear-greed-and-fear was just too painful.

9. I’m scared! But if I’m not scared, the job isn’t big enough.
Over a 20-year span, I helped Steffan make four upward career moves as CEO each time. Once when I asked how he was doing in a new role, he said, “I’m scared. But if I’m not scared, the job isn’t big enough.” The great actress Katherine Hepburn said she never accepted a role unless it scared her. That’s food for thought.

As I coached a regional manager for a national paint company (name confidential), he was promoted to a higher sales management position in the southeastern U.S. After two weeks, I called to ask how he was doing.

He said, “I’m doing great!”
“Really, what’s happening?”
“This is a totally new territory for us. No one knows our name.

Further, he said, “There’s a Sherwin Williams store on every corner, and I’m going to come down here and kick their ass.”
Wow, that’s a high-challenge attitude. So many workers are bored in their jobs, even if they’re running the company. I’ve been there; maybe you have, too. High performance professionals can be the first to burn out: the dentist who’s pulled 187,000 teeth, or the trial lawyer who’s won 2,500 lawsuits. All of us are good candidates for “repetition burnout,” until and unless we keep challenge, even a little fear, in our day-to-day.

10. Success is a team sport.™
This phrase was coined and trademarked, by Rory MacDowell, the former VP of Information Technology for Fischer Scientific. Rory attributes his career success to the power of the teams he has built, and to the leadership teams he has played on. The CEO of Ball Corporation said he would always choose a team to solve a difficult problem, rather than an individual superstar. That surprised me.

Being an independent consultant, I’ve been a Lone Ranger all my life. But I’ve had dozens of employees and have been hired by 357 brand name businesses, non-profits, and educational institutions. Asking others for their thoughts and ideas gives you leverage you can’t get alone. Others can see your strengths and weaknesses, and the pros and cons of your ideas. My most-effective and highest-paid clients often say, “I really didn’t do it myself. It was a team effort.” So even if you’re a Lone Ranger, “Success is a team sport.”™

11. I don’t know what my future will bring, but I know it will be good.
OUTPLACEMENT is the business of helping people losing their jobs to be re-employed. Sometimes it’s done one-on-one, sometimes in groups. I’ve done onesie-twosies and worked in 5,000-person layoffs.

This time I was headed to an oil and gas company in Wyoming where a manager was to terminate his best friend of 25 years. This was a tough one. Mark, the manager, asked me to meet him the night before to plan the termination meeting. He met me in his hotel room, which was odd.

He was tearful and said he was terminating his best friend, Travis. Their wives were best friends and worked together. Their children were best friends and played together.

“This is going to ruin their lives and our friendships. This is a small town. The oilfield is laying off. There’s no work here. Travis and his family will have to relocate. It will tear our families apart. I can’t do this.”

This was one of the few times I’ve seen a seasoned manager cry.
The remarkable story has a happy ending, and I tell it here.

12. I’m not retiring—I’m rewiring.
Anna Jo Haynes founded Mile High Early Learning Centers, a $5 million United Way partner agency that provides daycare and early childhood education to disadvantaged children, ages 0 to 4. There are 1,000 children under her organization’s care. As she left the day-to-day management of the non-profit and recruited a President to replace her, friends asked her if she was retiring. She said no, “I’m not retiring—I’m rewiring.”

Anna Jo is a national treasure. She continues to represent Mile High Early Learning Centers in the community and in the Colorado legislature, passing bills in favor of early childhood education. She’s a wonderful example of re-inventing yourself. If you didn’t get to meet Mother Theresa, you should sit down with Anna Jo.

13. When you’re hiring, you’re creating the future of your company.
Dr. Donn Lobdell is one of the smartest men I’ve met. He’s a brilliant scientist as well as a great organizational leader. He was Vice President of Research & Development for COBE Laboratories, a pioneer in artificial kidney, cardiovascular surgery and blood component therapy. While Donn was there, COBE grew from $3 million to $400 million in sales.

Donn left COBE when the company was sold and became my outplacement client. While getting to know him I asked, “What’s the most important part of your job?”

I figured he’d say something like, “artificial intelligence, plastic polymers, or statistical sampling.” Instead, he said, “Hiring is the most important part of my job—because when you’re hiring, you’re creating the future of your company.” That was brilliant, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Donn’s team called prospective R&D engineers into COBE and asked them to make group presentations. They sent the eager candidates home for two weeks, then invited them back for more interviews. They threw difficult technical problems at them, many mission-critical to the business.

They sent the job hunters home again. The waiting was unbearable; I witnessed it when trying to get candidates hired at COBE, and all of us hated it. Interviews were followed by more interviews.

One day it clicked: they’re taking their time to get the right fit. They know the candidates, the candidates know them. There are no surprises. “When you’re hiring, you’re creating the future of your company.”

14. With part-time effort, you get part-time results.
In working with hundreds of candidates to maximize their careers, I’ve learned that Effort Equals Results (E=R). BIG effort produces BIG results, and sketchy effort yields sketchy results. This is hard to communicate, but A-students get A’s and C-students get C’s. The same thing happens here.

All my life my mother taught me that “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” She didn’t just teach it, she hammered it into me. And legendary Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” He also said, “Winning isn’t a sometime thing. Winning is an all the time thing.”

One of my clients was the grandson of the famous Denver architect, Temple Hoyne Buell. Buell established the largest architectural firm in the Rocky Mountains, and designed and built 300 buildings here. He’s a legend. When I asked the grandson if he might consider part-time work, he replied, “My grandfather said that ‘with part-time effort you get part-time results.'” I’ve always liked that quote.

15. You-all are a lot smarter than I am.
I met Charles B. McIlwaine when he retired from the Coleman Company. I was hired to provide his career transition counseling (outplacement). Charles had been the Vice President of Corporate Communications & Investor Relations for Coleman, in charge of all public-facing communication for the corporation, including advertising, marketing, and public relations. In addition, Charles was liaison with the industry analysts on Wall Street. It was a big job at the top of a public company.

Charles became a close friend, and later, an investor and shareholder in CareerLab®. He attended our two-hour staff meeting every Monday, and we occasionally had lunch at J. Alexander’s with what he called “an adult beverage.” Although a prominent executive who had been a personal friend of Sheldon Coleman, Charles was understated. Coming from a powerful position in a big company, having clashed with the titans of Wall Street, I would have expected Charles to be more opinionated, but his style was different. He listened a lot and seldom spoke. But when he spoke in a staff meeting, we took notice.

He would sit in a meeting for an hour not saying much, then would begin with something like this: “You-all are a lot smarter than I am, and I don’t know nearly as much as you do about this, but couldn’t we consider (fill in the blank: taking an equity partner to increase our market share, or staffing a trade show booth)?”

Charles wasn’t from the south; he hailed from Wichita, home of the Coleman Company and the Kansas Jayhawks. He said you-all, not y’all.

Of course, everyone in the room understood that Charles knew way more than we did. Ours was, after all, a six-person company, not a 6,000-person company like Coleman. True to his title, he knew how to communicate. Our staff, board of directors, and clients all loved Charles. He was charming, and that endeared us to him.

Charles B. McIlwaine

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