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Executive Summary

Reprint: R0807C

Despite their lofty job titles and impressive pay, many high-achieving executives feel professionally dissatisfied and unfulfilled. Looking back, they wish they’d accomplished more or even chosen a different career altogether. Often they feel trapped in their jobs.

In this article, Kaplan, a Harvard Business School professor, examines why people arrive at this impasse—and offers them guidance on how to break through it and reach their full potential. That goal isn’t about getting to the top, he says. Rather, it’s about taking a very personal look at how you define success in your heart of hearts, and then finding your own path there.

To discover your way, you need to step back and reassess your career, recognizing that managing it is your responsibility. Many people feel like victims when, in fact, most career wounds are self-inflicted. Taking control begins with understanding yourself: seeking frank feedback about your strengths and weaknesses from colleagues above and below you, and figuring out what you truly enjoy doing. That understanding—not other people’s definition of success—should guide your career choices and goals. Next, it’s critical to identify the three or four tasks central to your business and make sure you excel at them; otherwise, success is likely to elude you.

Once you’ve chosen the right enterprise, you must show character and leadership. Great executives put the interests of their company and colleagues ahead of their own. They’re willing to speak up, even to voice unpopular views. Many managers hit a plateau because they play it too safe. But those that identify their dreams, develop the skills to realize them, and demonstrate courage will find fulfillment—even if they hit bumps along the way.

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Despite racking up impressive accomplishments, you feel frustrated with your career—convinced you should be achieving more. You may even wish you had chosen a different career altogether.

These feelings often stem from a common error: buying into others’ definitions of success. To reach your potential, Kaplan suggests taking a deeply personal look at how define success:

Begin by recognizing that managing your career is responsibility. Then, follow these three steps:

The Idea in Practice

Kaplan offers these guidelines for reaching your potential at work:

Know Yourself

Write down your 2–3 greatest strengths weaknesses. If (like most people) you struggle with identifying key weaknesses, solicit the views of people (peers, direct reports, trusted friends) who will tell you the brutal truth. Ask for very specific feedback (“How well do I listen?” “What is my leadership style?”). Be receptive to the input you receive.

Then figure out what you truly enjoy doing. What’s your dream job? Resist the lure of a hot field: If you go into it without a strong enthusiasm for the actual work, you may waste a number of years before you admit it’s the wrong job for you. Once you’ve chosen your ideal job, you’ll have to start from scratch. But choosing a field you love gives you strength to weather the inevitable setbacks and long hours needed to reach your full potential in any career.

Excel at Critical Activities

Identify the 3–4 activities essential for success in your desired or current role. Then develop a plan for excelling in these activities. Example:

A new division head at a large industrial company was struggling to grow sales and profits. Through interviews with staff and customers, he concluded that success in his business hinged on developing close relationships with top customers’ purchasing managers, putting the right people in critical leadership positions, and staying at the cutting edge of product innovation. He began delegating activities less central to success so he could focus on raising the bar on the three success factors he had identified. Sales and profits improved.

Demonstrate Character and Leadership

Character and leadership make the difference between good and great performance. To demonstrate character :

To exhibit leadership , speak up—even when you’re expressing an unpopular view. Your superiors desperately want dissenting opinions so they can make better choices. If you play it safe instead of asserting your heartfelt opinions, you may hit a plateau in your career.

Know yourself
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