I’ve been lucky during my career to have had several role models. The first senior auditor and manager I worked for were great boosters. Early in my career I was lucky to be dropped into a large assembly of focused, driven professionals who had been drawn to the challenge of working in the former Soviet Union. I was lucky to briefly work for a genuinely awe-inspiring visionary who reshaped my views on how to approach work (it’s not the work, it’s how you approach the work). But here in the third decade of my career, who do I look to? My anti-heroes.
I don’t hate my anti-heroes. But I do look to the people who’ve achieved a lot in their careers who I may not like, or understand. I try to see why they succeeded despite what I perceive. And it’s always enlightening. It’s easy to fall into the self-confirmation trap, where you assume what got you to point X will automatically get you to point Y. It took me a while after I left the corporate world and moved into consulting to understand that the tools and skills that made me a successful manager in the multinational corporation world were not the same tools and skills that would serve me as a mid-career consultant. Anti-heroes helped me understand that people I didn’t understand could succeed, and I could learn from them.
We all like to think we’ve figured it out. It’s unsettling to think you haven’t. It’s even more unsettling to think that not only haven’t you figured it out, you are actually wrong. “Everyone at my company who gets ahead had an Ivy degree” may sound like a good identification of success, but suddenly you may realize it has nothing to do with the Ivy League education and everything to do with efforts in networking. Or that so-and-so was simply watching for opportunities, and seized them by spending time having lunch with the right person.
As you move on in your career, it’s just always important to make a careful balance between developing skills, relationships and … well, for lack of a better word, vlast. It’s a Russian word – “power” – that has undertones of influence, control, intimidation, and so on. Some of my anti-heroes have been great at using their influence to succeed, and I’ve tried to learn from that. We’d all like to think we succeed solely on the merits, but we don’t.
So while I’ve genuinely enjoyed my true mentors and my peers who lifted me up, it’s my anti-heroes who inspire me to reexamine how I work and what I do today that motivate me now. Thanks to those unnamed, recent colleagues. You annoyed me and taught me – I owe you.