How to Kill Your Career in Three Easy Steps

What Thanksgiving, Potato Peels, and a Toilet Plunger Have in Common

We have a long-standing Thanksgiving tradition in our house. I cook and my wife cleans up.

She’s not fond of the onerous preparation a full turkey dinner entails, and I, being male, am not fond of cleaning. It’s a trade-off that works for both of us.

As I’m preparing dinner, the rest of the family sits at the kitchen table and plays cards, jawing at each other and taking jabs at me. It’s a fun family festivity.

A couple of years ago, after I peeled ten pounds of potatoes (There are never enough mashed potatoes at our dinner table.), the drain that flowed from the sink out through the garbage disposal got clogged. Too many tiny potato peels plugged the pipe and backed up the drain. It being Thanksgiving Day and all, no plumber on the face of the earth was available.

No plumber? No problem! I’d read an article on the Internet for a situation just like this.

I took our toilet plunger and plunged the opening of the garbage disposal. The article on the Internet said the pressure of the plunging would break up the clog of potato peels and blow the water through the drain. Pretty cool, huh? And that’s exactly what it did.

Here’s what else it did: The pressure was so intense that it burst the joints of our drain pipes below the sink, flooding the kitchen with dirty sink water and ground up scraps of potato peels. Thanksgiving would never be the same.

This unfortunate affair perfectly parallels what can happen in a leader’s life. Everything is moving along fine until some problem occurs—an unexpected turnover, the loss of a major account, the miss of your financial forecast—and the pressure starts to build.

And when that happens, it’s not the strengths in your leadership infrastructure that bring a blowout but the weaknesses. Not the pipes but the joints.

Over the course of two decades of working with executive leaders, I’ve seen many of these blowouts occur and have come to believe they’re entirely preventable. How? By making sure the most vulnerable areas of your leadership are strong and stable.

Here are three of these vulnerabilities, or what I’ve snarkily (Yes, that’s a word . . . maybe.) called, How to Kill Your Career in Three Easy Steps.

STEP ONE: Don’t Play Well with Others

The first weakness that causes a blow-out in the leaders I’ve worked with is cross-functional friction. That is, an inability to communicate in a positive and productive manner with one’s colleagues and peers. And it’s a career killer.

Most frontline leaders know how to build loyalty among the members of their teams. Within this limited sphere of influence, connections are easily forged through repeated daily interactions. Additionally, the dependency team members have on their direct supervisor for reward and advancement causes most to look the other way when a weakness asserts itself.

The rest of the organization, however, doesn’t have that same up-close-and-personal experience with a frontline leader, nor its inherent dependency. So when this person treats colleagues with disrespect, joints crack, and water begins to seep out of the pipes (not to mention dirty scraps of potato peels).

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I learned this difficult lesson when I went from being the sales manager to the general manager at a group of radio stations where I worked some years ago. While my sales team loved me—or pretended to love me—the rest of the company shuddered and almost walked out when I was made their boss.

I realized, at that moment, I had acted poorly in my interactions with them, strutting around with a chip on my shoulder as if sales ruled the world. It nearly ruined the advancement of my career, as some members of the board of directors began to reconsider their selection.

I immediately went to work on mending fences, and the story ended well. But it nearly didn’t and put a painful detour in my path at what should have been an exciting opportunity.

STEP TWO: Don’t Pay Attention to Details

A second way to kill your career is ignoring important details.

The biggest difference between being an individual contributor and being a manager is the exponential increase in the flow of communication and demands on your time. Unless an extra six hours in the day came with your promotion, you’ve got to up your game in the personal organization and productivity departments.

The problem is, most leaders don’t understand this reality and their performance suffers as a result. Is this happening to you?

Consider these questions:

  • Do you quickly say yes to requests but ultimately miss deadlines?

  • Is the unread email in your inbox in the double-digits? Or triple digits?

  • Do you forget important meetings or arrive late, scrambling from one meeting to another?

  • Is your to-do list filled with unfinished tasks that you never got around to completing?

  • Do you regularly throw together presentations at the last minute, knowing in your heart that it isn’t your best work?

Yes to any of these questions is a wake-up call to become a more organized, productive professional. The best leaders have found a way, irrespective of how meticulous their temperaments might be, to execute crisply on the dates, deadlines, and details of their work life. You must do the same

STEP THREE: Work All the Time

“I’m in a high-octane, high-performance culture,” a talented manager recently admitted me. “The pressure is enormous at my company to work all the time. What do I do?”

Here’s what I told him: First, the thing about high-octane rocket fuel is that it burns hot and fast, flaming out the vessel it’s in. No one can work all the time and not pay a price, physically and emotionally. Take the long view and not the short view in your career.

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Second, it’s a myth that more work brings better results. Research has shown that after fifty hours of work a week, performance output dramatically decreases, with the optimal work week being closer to forty-five hours in duration. The law of diminishing returns is at play here. Like squeezing an orange, there’s only so much juice in it, no matter how hard you squeeze. For a deeper dive into this concept, read the article I wrote: How Many Hours Should You Work a Week? How Do You Make Them Count?

Finally, innovation and creativity come through rest, not more work. Anyone who’s had an idea pop into his or her head in the shower knows what I mean. The moments we’re not consciously thinking about a problem are often the times an answer arises. Sometimes, when I wake up after a good night’s sleep, I’ll know exactly what to do with a challenging situation that’s been troubling me.

Experiencing this dynamic on a daily basis means cutting off work at a reasonable hour in the day, getting eight hours of solid sleep a night, unplugging on the weekend, and enjoying extended vacations. These aren’t the habits of a lazy leader. They’re the habits of a highly effective one, who knows the next great breakthrough will come from a mind that’s at ease and at rest, not one that’s consumed with urgencies and emergencies.

Think about it this way. When cattle graze the same track of land over and over again, the ground beneath them becomes hard and barren. And when people work all the time, they’re doing the same thing to their hearts and souls, not to mention what they’re doing to their homes and families. Less is more.

So if you want, go ahead and kill your career. Don’t play well with others. Don’t pay attention to details. Work all the time. The rest of us will do the opposite and enjoy rich and rewarding personal and professional lives.


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