The life-changing power of small things: Weekly Improvements

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series The life-changing power of small things

On May 21, James Citrin, the author of The Career Playbook who is also the leader and CEO Practice at Spencer Stuart delivered the Wesleyan University Phi Beta Kappa Commencement Address. This post has been adapted and condensed from that speech by the man himself and reproduced here without any alterations whatsoever.

Weekly Improvements

When I graduated from business school, I had a lot of potential directions that I could pursue. Thanks to being supported by and then challenged by my great Vassar professors, especially my freshman English professor, who saw some inkling of academic and literary potential in the midst of a quite immature 18-year-old, and the empowering culture of the liberal arts, more broadly speaking – inquiry, writing, thinking, and examining – I was able to thrive and get a good job upon graduation.

After three years as a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley, I was accepted to Harvard Business School. As I headed toward graduation in 1986, I was intent on getting the best job I could. I took an analytical approach to the process, identifying the criteria that I thought were the most important in a job. I created a spread sheet and then rated each opportunity against the criteria.

For me at that time, I boiled it down to Prestige, lifestyle, and money. I wanted to work for a company and in a role that I was proud of. I wanted to make a lot of money. And loving my freedom and sports, I didn’t want to work 80 hours a week. Against these criteria, there was one job that scored head-and-shoulders above the rest.

Research shows that how much people like and respect their colleagues is the single biggest explanatory factor as to how engaged and satisfied they are in their jobs. Click To Tweet

So I joined Goldman Sachs as an associate in private wealth management. Great prestige – an associate at Goldman; great money; and based in New York with much better hours than investment banking or many other high-paying jobs. well, the analysis was great, but it turned out to be fundamentally flawed leading to a horrendous career mistake. Happily, however, I learned some valuable lessons and took away two additional concrete examples of how to apply and benefit from the life-changing power of small things.

The first lesson was the singularly powerful role of people and purpose in what you choose to do. My three criteria – prestige, money, and lifestyle – are simply the wrong way to make a career decision. It quickly became obvious that I made a mistake, as I was miserable after only four months on the job. It turns out that there are two things that central to happiness and satisfaction in your work – people and purpose.

Extensive research shows that the single biggest explanatory factor as to how engaged and satisfied people are in their jobs is how much they like and respect the people they work with on a daily basis. So if you want to be happy in your career, whatever you do, default to choosing to work with people that you like and respect.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t become friends with most of the other members of the Goldman private wealth management team, they were fine enough; it was more that I didn’t aspire to be like most of them. What they cared about was the stock market; investing; landing big new “pools of capital;” talking to clients and each other about money and markets.

Not only did I find no deep purpose in what I was doing there, but I also realized that I was lousy as an investor and investment advisor. Here’s another key career management principle – do something that you are fundamentally interested in and that you are good at. I know, obvious stuff, but you’d be surprised by how many people make bad decisions based on missing the key things. People, purpose, and playing to your strengths and interests.

Without that error, I never would have found my way next to McKinsey, which was a wonderful fit for five years, and then on to Spencer Stuart for the past 22 years. And I never would have been able to write The Career Playbook which shares all the lessons from my wayward mistakes.

There was another silver lining to my Goldman debacle, however. I learned another life-changing small thing.

One of the legends of Wall Street was named Richard Menschel, who was on the management committee of Goldman. One day he sat me down in his glass-walled office and shared what he said was his single best piece of advice. “At the end of each week,” he said, “spend a few minutes reviewing the things you did that went well, and the things that did not work. Then commit, each week, to make one concrete change to improve the things that didn’t work. Develop this as a habit, and you will be amazed at its power and impact.” What he was saying was that through the power of small things – making single improvements each week, they will build upon one another and over time have an extraordinary impact on your performance and results.

This brings us to another powerful discipline to build. Goal setting.

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