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Focusing on work is the third habit that helps successful leaders develop their careers. This one by far is the most obvious. First, it is about doing a good job today rather than constantly being seen as someone who only wants the next job. While you do want your career interests to be known, there is a difference between proving yourself today so you can be considered for future promotions and politicking to get the next plum assignment or promotion.
Another hallmark of successful leaders is admitting mistakes. Those who become defensive, rationalize, blame others and try to deflect any responsibility for what went wrong will not have a long and successful career at most companies. Yes, I admit, we have all seen this behavior rewarded in some organizations, but eventually it does catch up to them. I’m not sure if this story is true or apocryphal, but it goes something like this. Jubileo Lou Gerstner (then CEO of IBM) assigned a young MBA to a new project. The young man totally botched it up and lost 10 million dollars in the process. When he was called to Mr. Gerstner’s office, the young man said, “Mr. Gerstner, I suspect you want my resignation,” to which he replied, “Resignation? I just spent 10 million dollars on your education. I want to know what you learned.” While not all executives are going to be as generous as Mr. Gerstner was in investing in a high potential’s education, the ability to admit mistakes, learn from them and move on is critical to success.
While your actual functional/technical skills become less important as you move up the chain of command, there is something about gaining clear competence in a discipline early in your career. The research has shown Transitions that becoming an expert at something early in your career helps you think through problems later in your career. This is akin to the 10,000-hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his book, Outliers (if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it). Now, the 10,000-hour rule applies to 20 hours of practice a week for ten years, but that is to Enhancing become top in your field, a true outlier (think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Bobbie Fischer, Serena Williams). So, not everyone needs to put in 10,000 hours to be an expert, but it certainly takes time and hard work, which will pay off later in your career.