Linda King finds working as a roof bolter's helper at the Bullitt Mine in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, more challenging and better paying than her previous job in a garment factory (NARA)

Accomplishment Does Not Equal Success

Forrest Christian Careers, Change, Coaching, Warren Kinston Leave a Comment

One of the mistakes I made early on in my career was to believe that if I had some great accomplishments that I would gain success, including things like money and community respect. This is clearly false, and I’ve recently had a series of communications with an organizational thinker that confirms it.

But first let’s look at some of the comments I’ve gotten from a recent Facebook update about just this point.

My initial comment was simple:

Accomplishing great things is one of the surest ways to become a failure.

One of the commenters told of his own experience from one year to the next:

Two years ago I got some stuff done, but I apparently ticked off some self-important tit with a lack of kowtowing. Last year I did almost nothing and interacted with almost no one. Performance reviews: 2yrs ago Acceptable; last year Good “showing real interpersonal skill improvement.”

Another sensed that not everyone was getting what I was saying. He told of an example from a place of prior employment where someone accomplished something game-changing, and then got fired.

An example of what Forrest is saying:

The head of the computer systems group at my old company was driven and visionary. In the late ’90s, he put us to work developing a flight simulator computing platform that could run on a $4000 PC server instead of a $60,000 special-purpose computer. It opened the door to desktop trainers that could run the same software as the $15 million full-flight sims. 10 years later that architecture is still in use.

As for him, he was canned a couple of years after his new system was first fielded. An issue involving a subcontractor’s source code was the pretext for firing him, but it seemed specious to me. He had stepped on a lot of toes and set a high standard for diligence and energy that not everyone in the company wanted to meet.

What in the world is going on? My own experience taught me this, but I always thought that it was something about me that was somehow deeply flawed. My miserable experience at INFOSEC (which still qualifies as the worst job experience I’ve ever had) was similar to the first commenter. I came in as a manager for a remote team of programmers, who were being given what they had to do from a software architect at the client’s site three hours away. We went from having no deliverables in months to drops every two weeks, with testing and quality control. I pushed back for better instructions — the guys at the client would not say whether we should be doing this in .NET or Visual Basic, which you’d think you’d need to get straight — and fought for better treatment of the staff I had.

Bad idea.

This led to the mugging that was my first “performance review” where I was told “you were supposed to bring in new ways of doing things” followed two sentences later by “these people aren’t going to do anything differently”. When I asked pointblank what actions I did that needed changing, they told me that it was no action I was doing or not doing, simply perception.

I still boil about this from time to time, and still feel betrayed over it. But now I can tell you better about what was going on. [The full story, as it happened, is available on my old personal blog. Send me an email and I’ll send you a link for the whole, squalid story.]

We can go on with examples from the past, for history seems littered with these stories. Again, what is going on?

I got some of the clues recently from Warren Kinston, the biotech entrepreneur / psychiatrist / organizational consultant / basic thinker / writer. Warren’s got a new “Game of THEE” that he is putting up on his website, now in alpha testing. In it, he looks at an article that one of you suggested to him, Rooke & Torbert’s “Seven Transformations of Leadership” (HBR, April 2005) [PDF].

One of their leadership types isn’t one. They call it “Individualist” (which Warren points out is a very poor name choice) and describe it through a supposedly true story from one of their clients. “Sharon” was a star performer whom the CEO was considering firing. She

had been asked to set up an offshore shared service function in the Czech Republic in order to provide IT support to two separate and internally competitive divisions operating there. She formed a highly cohesive team within budget and so far ahead of schedule that she quipped that she was “delivering services before Group Business Risk had delivered its report saying it can’t be done.”

The CEO was thinking about firing her almost because she was so incredibly successful at accomplishing. Her work had bent the noses of less-accomplishing but “more important” subordinates of the CEO.

Although she showed great political savvy when it came to her individual projects, she put many people’s noses out of joint in the larger organization because of her unique, unconventional ways of operating. Eventually, the CEO was called in (not for the first time) to resolve a problem created by her failure to acknowledge key organizational processes and people who weren’t on her team.

The CEO decided to keep her in part because, R&T write, he “had recently lost several capable, if unconventional, managers.” Who apparently were likewise high-accomplishers.

Sharon stayed awhile and then setup an “offshore consultancy”.

Rooke & Torbert are remarkably wrong in their prescription about how the CEO should have handled her, Warren notes. But they get the description exactly right, and he thinks it’s a good example of what he calls “reality-centredness” approach in his Interacting for Benefit scheme.

These people are the ones who really see what’s going on. They look at the kissing-ass and floor groveling as simply a social construct that may or may not be useful to accomplish something. They don’t play power games well. In his new “Game of THEE”, Warren says:

Reality-centred people can see through things and into people, which enables them to get to the essentials rapidly, and to cut through the guff and irrelevancy that clutter up most meetings and consume most people’s time.

He notes that a wise CEO once let the truth out of the bag when he fired a Reality-Centred underling by saying, “In spite of your successes — or rather because of them — you’re fired.” These people tend to tick off everyone else around them except for the people who work underneath them or laterally on projects. They play amazing games to get things done but do not suffer fools gladly.

I initiated an email thread with him on this. I wanted to know why it was that, at least in my experience and what I had been able to gather from others, that Reality-Centred persons will almost never survive long in their jobs. Warren explained:

A lot of what happens in work is based in habit, convention, imitation. A reality-centred person simply sees through such things. If employed to do something, they ignore habit, convention, imitation etc. … as a result other people get rather upset. Breaking conventions is particularly heinous (see Ch.8 WcV). Furthermore, others get upset at being upset in the face of superior results, & feel humiliated etc. Reality-centred people don’t do what they do to upset people, it seems to them the sensible way that they, others and the organization can benefit. The CEO looks at his cadre of 30 capable senior managers and the one reality-centred maverick and has to decide who to sacrifice. There is not much choice.

[“WcV” is Working with Values: Software of the Mind which he describes as “A Systematic and Practical Account of Purpose, Value and Obligation in Organizations and Society”. It’s not available online or as an eBook.]

Warren suggests that these people are successful in consultancy, because most people want the Truth only in small amounts. The CEO can do nor not do anything with the recommendations, or do something at his leisure. I once hear a reality-centered consultant telling his client, “If you do that, this is just what is going to happen. You don’t have to not do it, you just are going to have to clean up this other mess if you do.”

The problem is that no one wants much of this. Warren says that a reality-centered consultant he knows is pretty much limited to one session with a executive client per month. That’s not how you build a successful business. Or at least you are not going to be sustainable unless you already have the clients lined up before you start. It may take 200-300 hours of marketing to get one client at this level, and then you get a day a month.

The solution seems to be to attempt to develop the market-centered perspective in yourself. You can do it with a lot of work. You’ll never be great at it but all you need is a modicum of market-centredness to leaven the whole self. It allows you to become a entrepreneur.

You still won’t be an entrepreneur whom people respect or understand, at least not until you make a massive amount of money. Your ability to see reality as it is and not as you are will allow you to do things that will be successful when others will be stuck doing things the old way. You need to be in a time when things are changing. Like these times.

Nor do you have to worry about people copying you. This is the banker issue we discussed awhile back, the wisdom of Keynes on how bankers are better off failing while doing what every other banker does rather than not failing by doing things differently. You reward people with big bonuses who collapse the economy in a way that the field expects (see the US banking industry’s compensation recently). The “mavericks” get money, and avoid the entire collapse.

They never get respect.

Perhaps respect is overrated. It’s nice to have your family or community think well of you. Perhaps you will settle on having more cash than you do today.

Accomplishment often leads to life failure. Be careful what you do.

Image Credit: Linda King finds working as a roof bolter’s helper at the Bullitt Mine in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, more challenging and better paying than her previous job in a garment factory, 1979, President’s Commission on the Coal Industry (USA). NARA via Wikimedia Commons.

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