The Best Route to Success – Incremental Gains

Advancing your career success
Slow and Steady Wins the Race

I remember an old cartoon of a reporter asking a famous star, “How do you account for your overnight success?” To which the star responded, “Twenty years of hard work.”

In our current, reality-TV world, there are people who become household names in a very short time. I have found, though, that that type of fame is often short-lived.

Overnight success in the business world is rare.  You might argue that there are people like Mark Cuban. He created a website, sold it for billions and is now owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. He’s also a “shark” on the popular TV show Shark Tank.

While Cuban has become a poster child for internet success, his wasn’t overnight. He putting himself through business school at Indiana University. Then he worked as a bartender and a software salesman. After being fired from the software company, he started his own company. Seven years later, he sold the company, for which he made about $2 million. He started another company, Audionet in 1995, which became Broadcast.com. His company grew throughout the dot-com craze in the late 90s. He then sold it in 1999 to Yahoo for $5.7 billion.

So this “overnight success” who started working after business school in 1982 became a billionaire overnight…in just seventeen years.

You can say that Cuban was in the right place at the right time. You can say that he was lucky. Maybe you need both of those to become a billionaire. But it was also the result of seventeen years of hard work, business skill, and savvy business decisions.

He climbed the corporate ladder further and faster than most of us, but it wasn’t a fluke, and it wasn’t overnight.

See my related post: Why You Can’t Be the Best

Most of us in the business world have been conditioned to aim high and climb that ladder. Whether we “work for the man” or take an entrepreneurial route, we drive toward the next level. Some companies have the unwritten rule of “up or out”. If you aren’t moving up the ladder, you’ll be moving out in due time.

That’s not necessarily a bad policy, as long as it is in alignment with your own career goals.  If you like what you’re doing and would not like the work involved in the next rung of the ladder, why would you try to achieve that?  Making more money doing something you hate is no way to make a living.

Career – and personal – growth can often be achieved by climbing the career ladder.  But it doesn’t happen overnight. Some move up faster than others, but the standard approach is slow and steady.

It has been my observation that people who move up too fast, often end up flaming out. Most often it’s because they overreached, and surpassed the level of their competence. They failed because they didn’t learn the necessary skills from moving up in a more orderly manner.

I once worked for a small firm that experienced great initial success.  They began a rapid growth plan, opening offices in major cities as fast as they could.  The president once said, “If the city is large enough for a professional sports team, we want to have an office there.”

Within a few years, there was a market shift and IBM, our major partner company, quit handing business over to us.  Suddenly, the rapid growth – and the debt associated with it – imploded upon the company. They filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Despite efforts to downsize, by offices and people, they went out of business a year later.

Setting stretch goals to move up the ranks or to grow your business is admirable and generally an appropriate goal.  But slow and steady wins the race. Advancement that is too rapid can backfire and set your career back further.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com 

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