What Am I Supposed To Be Learning From This?

Posted 06.21.2010

Classroom A long time ago in a land far away, I worked for a year as a first year associate in a now defunct Wall Street investment bank. It was a stressful, but educational experience. What did I learn? Lots of things. Things like the recruiting process is not necessarily the best indicator of what it will be like to actually work someplace.  

Or, that you shouldn’t believe everything you read. The firm I worked for had ten corporate values printed in the back of its annual report. Number ten was, “Have fun!”  Late one afternoon, about six months into the year, one of my first year colleagues had the temerity to ask Dan, the senior associate who was our drill sergeant, “Hey Dan, one of our corporate values is ‘Have fun!’  When do we get to have fun?” Face reddening, veins bulging, Dan’s reply was “Not until your third year!”

But the biggest thing I learned that year was how not to lead. The senior partners in our department led through fear and intimidation. A typo in a proposal was cause for being publicly called out and dressed down in an all hands staff meeting. Leaving the office before 7:30 or 8:00 pm was seen as a lack of commitment.  Yelling at subordinates was the norm. There were good cops and bad cops to keep you on your toes. The threat of firing was always in the air. I often said to myself, “If I ever lead a group of people, I’m going to do the exact opposite of everything they’re doing here.” That actually ended up being a pretty good running start on an approach to leadership in the jobs I had after that one. 

My Wall Street days came to mind recently when I was listening to an executive speak to a group of high potential leaders I’m coaching. 

She was fantastic because she kept things real and made it safe for everyone to talk. In addition to the good times and the successes, she talked about tough times she had been through in her career and bad bosses she had worked for. She had a couple of  great pieces of advice for people that are going through a difficult stretch in their career. First, ask yourself, “What am I supposed to be learning from this?” You can learn as much from the bad experiences and bad bosses as you can from the good ones. You just need to stay in learning mode.

Second, keep a long term perspective. Even if a tough assignment lasts for three years or so, that’s still a pretty small percentage of a thirty or forty year career. In a commencement speech at Stanford a few years ago, Steve Jobs made the point that you can never connect the dots in advance, you can only connect them in reverse. In other words, it’s only after we’ve lived through something that we have the perspective to understand why we had to go through it.

What difference has it made or would it make to you to ask yourself, “What am I supposed to be learning from this?”