A few weeks ago, I had to good fortune to run into an old boss of mine, Piers Plowright. He was one of the first people I worked for at the BBC, and one of the best. Much to my amazement, I discovered that he was now retired but not at all to my amazement, that he was enjoying his retirement immensely. “From time to time, they ask me back to do something for them,” he said. “I try not to go back too often. I just think it’s better for everyone to move on without me.”
What impressed me about Piers wasn’t that he was so modest; that wasn’t really the gist of his comment. What was so impressive was that, after nearly 40 years in the same institution, he wasn’t even slightly institutionalized. And while most of us don’t expect (or hope) to spend the whole of our professional lives working for the same company, institutionalism is something we can fall prey to in a matter of months, never mind years.
What does institutionalism look like? I used to see it all the time when I interviewed job candidates. I’d ask them about a particular project or assignment and they’d tell me about the company’s goals and whether, and how, they’d been achieved. The department or the company or the division: Those were the voices I heard. The candidates presented themselves as good soldiers, understanding, accepting and executing missions — but missions they never really owned. When I probed further, I’d learn more about tactics and operations; I’d come away impressed by the wholesale ingestion of company thinking. I could tell they’d always be good at doing what they were told. But something was missing.
What was missing was the career narrative: not why the project was important to the company but why the project was important to the candidate. What the candidate learned. How the candidate grew. I cared very much less about the corporate strategy than I did about the career strategy, less about corporate goals than personal development goals.
Why did I care? Not out of altruism, you may be sure. I cared because, in my experience, the very best people find inside every project a personal challenge that enables them to own their assignment. High achievers always set themselves goals that are a bit of a stretch and if the company doesn’t do this — they do this for themselves. I understand now that that is what Piers did. He might have been assigned to produce a straightforward show — but he always found, inside the material, an opportunity to teach or test himself further and further. Sometimes he fell flat on his face — how, you’d hear people wonder, could some one so good make something so bad? — and sometimes he’d scoop international prizes. He wasn’t ambitious for money or power — but he was immensely ambitious to hone his skills and talents — and he still is. In some ways, I’d say he is the most ambitious man I’ve ever known.
I realize now that I copied him. After I moved into television, I was asked to write and direct a film about how the humble bunny rabbit came to be introduced into England. (It is originally from Spain.) It’s hard to imagine a subject further from my heart. So I set myself two challenges: first, to see if I could make the film funny, and second to learn how to film with animals. In the end, I learned a lot about film humor (or my rather weird brand of it) and I learned a lot more about shooting with animals than I ever care to repeat. But — and this is the heart of the matter — the film was a great deal better for my private challenges and my career was a great deal better too.
As an employer, I’ve always looked for people who set their own challenges because I know they’ll take the initiative and deliver tremendous value. But it goes beyond that. In designing personal challenges that are compatible but not identical with corporate challenges, they always push the envelope. They are never institutionalized and they’re rarely phased by change. They can’t be; it isn’t the way they think. That means they are, by and large, more creative, more robust — and a lot more fun to have around.
So what is your career narrative? What is it that you are working for, or towards? If your answer is money alone, then either you aren’t telling the truth — or you’re not thinking hard enough. If it is a promotion, why? Because you want to learn — or just because that’s the way the game is scored in your company? What is craft or expertise that you are trying to perfect? Career narratives matter not just because they make you more effective but because they give your working life an autonomy and individualism which protects you against he vagaries of downsizings, corporate scandals, reorganizations and, yes, retirement. If you know what you want from work, you can almost always find ways to pursue your goal. Because it is belongs to you — and not to your company.
There’s little that’s more powerful than having your own story to tell.