So, you’ve got a bunch of friends who keep getting promoted and landing awesome new jobs (with accompanying awesome titles) and you’re feeling like your career is falling behind. You just can’t stop asking yourself how you’ll ever catch up.
Remember that old story about the tortoise and the hare? Well, as someone who’s always been in a hurry to get to the next level, I’ve come to realize that slow and steady is actually a really great approach. There is simply no substitute for hard-earned experience if you truly want to be successful in your chosen field.
My career’s journeyed for over 20 years through the airline industry, the music business as it was imploding, sports footwear, apparel, and nutrition where I ended up as Global President of Gatorade, and finally my most recent role as President of Equinox, the leader in the fitness industry. I’ve had some amazing team successes on my journey that’ll forever take me to that happy place in my mind—and I’ve also had some epic, epic fails.
Yeah, I’m not talking the type of fail like when you mistakenly forward an email to a giant CC list and announce a crush on your co-worker to your entire company. Nope. I’m talking the kind of fails where you get fired, laid off, and lose your legal right to work in this country. My path is certainly not one that’s for the faint of heart!
And what I can say from my experience is that every time the big blunders happened, it was almost always when I had gotten ahead of my skis. Like when someone had promoted me to a big job with an even bigger title because I interviewed really well and came across as a smart thinker. But whenever that happened and someone had overlooked my lack of experience (no doubt because I had regaled them in the interview with my daaaaaarling Kiwi accent and my witty repartee)—that’s when I got into trouble.
Now don’t get me wrong , I don’t have any regrets. Because in the end, after lots of bumps and bruises, it’s all worked out. But what I do know to be true is that there’s no substitute for experience. You can’t jump the line of experience—you really need to get in there and do it to have the depth, resilience, and strength it really takes to be a powerhouse leader.
Here are three big reasons why:
1. Depth Gives You Credibility
The higher up you get in an organization, the more people will look to you for assurance that you actually know what you’re doing. And here’s the truth: There’s going to be a lot of stuff that you’re asked to weigh in on that you actually don’t know much about and you’re going to feel really unsure of yourself a lot more than you’d like.
But if you have real depth in just one specific area—what one of my bosses used to call “your hit pocket skill”—then you’ll have one place in which you know you’re adding value to the team. And that’s where you will turn when you need a confidence boost.
This in turn will make you more comfortable to be more vulnerable and open to asking questions in the areas that are foreign to you. Leaders never have all of the answers, and one of the greatest traits of good managers is the willingness to acknowledge what they don’t know and ask for help. So, if you know you’re kicking ass and adding value because of your depth and expertise in one area, then you’re going to be far more likely to ask for help with your weaker bits. And that will make you far more well-rounded and less likely to have big, ugly blind spots that could drive your team into trouble.
2. The Power to Have Influence Comes From Real Experience
Leadership’s so much about your ability to influence others, especially with the pace of change in organizations today, and a major cultural shift away from “command and control” style leadership. Ultimately—even when you have a big title like President or Chief Something—people are not going to really follow you if you can’t inspire and influence them to do so. And it’s not just the folks that report to you—very often the toughest audiences are your peers or other stakeholders you need to get onboard with your team’s plan.
I’m a huge fan of Wharton Professor Adam Grant’s book, Originals: How Non-Comformists Move the World. In it, he discusses his research around “power without status.”
“When people sought to exert influence but lacked respect, others perceived them as difficult, coercive, and self serving. Since they haven’t earned our admiration, we don’t feel they have the right to tell us what to do, and we push back.”
It reiterates the fact that you really can’t influence people until you have had the experiences that earn you the right to do so.
I experienced this when I joined Equinox. Even though I came on board as the president of the company, I had this distinct feeling in my first year or so that people thought of me like a new season’s TV show. They might have DVR-ed me, but they hadn’t yet committed to watching because they didn’t know if I was going to be worthy of following!
So I spent time getting out into our field, working every position that I could in our clubs, from maintenance to front desk, to selling a membership and being a “floor trainer” handing out fresh towels to members. Not only did I have a blast, but by the time I came back to start thinking about the future of our company, I was so much more grounded in what really makes the business work. And, not surprisingly, employees were far more willing to give me input knowing that I had experienced the business properly.
3. You Need to Have the Courage of Your Convictions
To be a great leader, you have to be able to see a future that others are unable to see. And what that means is that you’re going to come up against weeks, months, and probably even years of conversations with people telling you all the reasons why your ideas won’t work. And let me tell you, it’s really freaking hard not to be affected by that. But if you have real depth of time and experience that enables you to see that future so clearly, you’ll have light years more resilience and drive to get to the future than if you don’t.
In my case, leading Gatorade from the world of sports drinks to the world of sports nutrition, or seeing Equinox as an “always on fitness lifestyle partner” instead of a gym—both of those experiences were hugely necessary in teaching me the grit required to drive innovation and change, and giving me the courage to launch my own business, EXTREMEYOU.
While I’ve had countless people tell me why this might not be for me—mostly because starting a business presents a very different set of challenges to revamping an existing one—I know the time is right for me to do this. With 20 years of experience under my belt, I have the mentors and relationships that provide the kind of moral support that’s hugely needed when you’re embarking upon something new and scary. And critically, I have legitimate subject matter depth on the topic of human potential, which is the area my business idea is focused on.
So, no matter where you are in your career: Remember that story of the tortoise and the hare. It’s important to keep feeling and encourage your restless desire to progress, but just remember, you can’t skip over the important experience steps if you want to really get the most out of your own potential in the long run.