14 Hazardous Pitfalls To Career Success

What’s preventing you from reaching your career goals? I’ve seen many people achieve beyond their wildest expectations and I’ve witnessed individuals fall short of realizing their dreams.

Why are some successful and others are not?

My conclusions are based on observing over many years that individuals who are not able to manoeuvre through the following pitfalls tend to underachieve while those who avoid them perform better and realize greater success.

Your competitive strategy is ineffective

The competition for career opportunities is more intense now than ever before and it shows no signs of waning. Fewer job opportunities and more people hunting for those opportunities results in raging battles to determine the winner.

Winners have a specific strategy to compete with the crowd for these limited opportunities. They have perfected their career game plan and have created a personal ONLY statement that separates them from everyone else.

If your career is stalling, it might be that either you don’t have a personal ONLY statement or you have one that doesn’t work; it’s not strong enough — it doesn’t make you stand out from others in a way that is relevant to the needs of the organization.

Remember, your ONLY statement should always be a draft because you are constantly testing its validity with your stakeholder groups that see you in action every day. Keep tweaking it based on the feedback you receive, the new skills and competencies you acquire and on the changing needs of the organization.

You’re invisible

Some people are invisible to those around them, particularly the career decision makers. Get noticed in the crowd of people all looking to advance themselves. You must be competent in your current role, of course, but if you are indistinguishable from your colleagues you have no way of being on a decision maker’s radar for job opportunities.

It’s interesting that getting noticed is uncomfortable for many people; they don’t like drawing attention to themselves. It’s almost like we’ve been taught at an early age that it’s somehow inappropriate to do things that make us stand out in our class — it makes us arrogant and narcissistic. Well, you need to get over that if that’s how you feel.

Leaders who are the custodians of opportunities in an organization must have you in their line of sight as a high potential individual who can contribute a great deal to the organization and who should be given the chance to do so.

There’s no prize if you are a genius and no one knows it but your mom — Roy, love my mom

Develop a ‘be visible’ plan that thoughtfully and respectfully unmasks you in front of the organization and presents your achievements in a simple, factual and truthful way.

Show your stuff in a way that is not merely an ego expression but rather a truthful narrative on what you do day in and day out to execute the strategy of the organization.

You’re not creating enough value

Achieve results that people care about. The focus must be on the benefits you create for the organization (and for people) as opposed to delivering a project or beating an objective due date for example.

It’s admirable that you completed your project two weeks ahead of schedule but what’s more important are the benefits you delivered to customers or employees or shareholders earlier than expected.

Realize that the project or task you’ve been given is just the internal vehicle for adding value to ‘the outside’; keep your eyes on your contribution to the marketplace within which your organization operates.

By the way, if you are successful with this approach other organizations might notice, and you may suddenly be presented with more career options.

Differences don’t define you

You’re perceived to be the same as others around you; you blend in. To move forward, you need to determine how you can be different from others; how you can be the ONLY one that does what you do (see my article on creating your career game plan).

If you’re not different than everyone else in some meaningful way — in a way that contributes to the goals and objectives of the organization — you will be viewed as nothing more than a common member of the herd and will have difficulty achieving a breakthrough in your career.

The crowd is a home for those who like the safety and comfort of not taking risks; who follow what others do and who love the consistency of crowd activity which lacks up-and-down variability — these attributes don’t apply to individuals who have successfully moved upward in any organization.

You’re a copycat

As a sequel to the above point, you place too much emphasis on copying others under the guise of innovation.

Copying best practices and doing what best in class organizations do runs rampant in organizations today. When faced with a ‘How should we do this?’ challenge, the first response by many professionals is to find a best practise and try to copy and implement it.

Copying is the antithesis of creativity — Roy, copycat loather

Successful people don’t automatically turn to a solution that someone else has thought of and used; they search for a unique approach that stands out from the crowd of best practices to become the best practice and the organization that others see as the benchmark to copy.

It’s one thing to learn from what others do and then morph it into something different that adds a personal twist; it’s quite another to copy what someone else does word-for-word and expect some miraculous improvement in one’s career. It won’t happen.

Don’t be lured into believing that emulation is the route to anything else but continuing to blend into the crowd with lacklustre performance like everyone else.

Sameness begets mediocrity — Roy, blend-in opponent

You must find your own way to break the mould of commonness and it doesn’t have to be complicated:

  • invent your own unique way to solve problems;
  • do more of what was asked;
  • hang out with ‘weird’ people and see how they deal with life’s challenges;
  • go the opposite direction to what is expected;
  • use trusted external resources for added credibility to what you do inside the organization;
  • launch recognition events for colleagues who have helped you deliver results;
  • launch additional projects from your original task without being told to do it.

The important thing is to add your own twist to whatever you do; make it a different part of your personal brand. Every opportunity you are given is a gift to be different; the successful ones know it and they gratefully accept it.

I have a trick to keep my be different mantra constantly in front of me. I ask myself ‘How can I do this differently?’ as the context for how I approach a new project, role (or a vacation with my grandchildren for that matter).

You talk more than you do

You’re viewed as a thinker; someone who loves to study and analyze things as opposed to someone who’s a doer.

A little less conversation, a little more action please — Elvis Presley

Career success isn’t about intent; it’s about getting stuff done in the trenches where life is messy and people never behave the way you expect them to.

It’s easy to declare what you want to achieve and sell your idea on its theoretical merits (every good idea is only a theoretical possibility until it achieves results). But in the final analysis, unless the notion actually produces something it’s basically useless.

Getting it done relies largely on the right hemisphere of the brain where emotion, passion, tenacity and perseverance live, not the left brain that houses logic and intelligence.

Implementation practitioners understand that if they are not prepared to get dirty in the trenches, their idea will be lost — Roy, dirty hands

Expending emotional energy to overcome roadblocks and barriers is the key ingredient to seeing a good idea successfully implemented.

My rule of thumb is to spend 20% of your time on the idea — get it sorta right — and 80% of your time on implementing it and tweaking it on the run based on what you learn as you implement it.

Your network needs a do-over

There are two potential issues with someone’s personal network: one, it can be too small and/or two, it can be of low quality.

On the former, some people simply don’t have enough contacts; their network is too small to effectively exploit the potential opportunities that are out there.

A broad network exposes more possibilities; a narrow network is more restrictive and is likely to present chances in fewer disciplines to choose from.

To avoid this pitfall, develop a strategy to expand your personal network. Remember to target quality contacts rather than trying to acquire arbitrary social media connections.

You will get a higher return (measured by the potential to supply you with job opportunities) from 100 quality LinkedIn connections, for example, than 1,000 Twitter followers or FB friends.

Also look to build alliances both within and outside the organization. Successful individuals rarely do it on their own; they need people around them who support their efforts and talk them up to others. Having colleagues spread your word is essential to being noticed and rewarded for your efforts.

It takes a community to create a winner, so be prepared to devote time and energy into creating communities of support and follower-ship.

Make a point of meeting someone — or ZOOMing them — for happy hour as a way to maintain relationships and update them on your current activities.

In terms of the quality of your network, perhaps your network is failing you and needs to be refreshed — the contacts you have are out of date in terms of the support they can provide you.

A productive network should be able to provide you with information you can use to progress your career because generally whoever possesses the most reliable information is in the best position to outdo everyone around them — they do the right thing quicker. And success usually follows.

Inventory your connections:

  • Do you have people connected with areas critical to your career plan? 
  • How many of your LinkedIn connections actually relate to your target position?
  • Are they acquaintances or proven advocates?
  • How many of your contacts have called you proactively to ask how you’re making out.
  • How many of them have referred you to others?
  • Have they provided you with information lately that has been useful in advancing your career agenda?

Purge your list down to the critical few people who can actually provide you with the information that could help you and who are willing to do so. And as I’ve stated above, add to the list if you have voids.

You rely too much on your education

Of course education is vital to success but don’t count on it to make you successful.

I look at an academic pedigree as the ante to play the career game. You need the piece of paper to play the game but it won’t guarantee you’ll win it.

Too many young professionals enter the work world expecting to be treated favourably because they have toiled for 8 years to graduate with status in a specific discipline. They feel entitled to get the opportunities that come available because of the knowledge they’ve gained.

Your academic pedigree gets you in the career game, but it doesn’t determine success — Roy, academic minimalist

But that’s not the way it works. Success depends on what you do with what you know; how you leverage your knowledge into amazing results for who you work for.

So take your piece of paper, suck everything you can out of it you can, and do stuff with it. The more clever you are at getting stuff done, the more successful you’ll be.

The other barrier associated with education is the tendency for everyone to approach problem solving the same way — ‘HOW compliance’. We were taught a specific way to do things at school and we had to relentlessly comply with the academic rules leaving no room to be different.

Perhaps more effort in determining different ways of achieving results will help.

You have the wrong kind of mentor

Someone who is intellectually brilliant but has never done much to successfully implement a worthy solution in the real world unfortunately attracts mentees.

Young people looking for a mentor are infatuated by the number of letters behind a person’s name as opposed to the list of things they have successfully implemented in the face of chaotic market forces.

This is a huge pitfall to success because it assumes high performance comes from the intellect and it doesn’t. As I’ve said many times before, success comes from the passion and fire in the belly of individuals who are driven to achieve.

Find a mentor who has a rich history of accomplishments; someone who has demonstrated they are unafraid of getting dirty to deliver. Listen to that person rather than the IQ-ladened one.

Most young professionals look to the person who knows stuff as their source for career advice and guidance. After all, most experts have knowledge credentials posted after their names — doctorate, masters and bachelor degree designations for example — and therefore are an attractive target for young people looking for guidance.

In my experience, however, the people to look up to; those individuals who have proven they can deliver results, are the ones who should be listened to and followed.

I have never seen one of these elite practitioners, for example, use the designation ‘consistent deliverer’ or ‘doer’ after their name, but they should.

Master crafters of doing stuff — Roy’s mentors

I know many smart people who have achieved less than their potential because they put all their trust in the way things should work — based on theory — as opposed to pouring their energy into finding a way to make them work in the hard realities of people bias and internal politics.

You might be enlightened and lucky enough to amass a stable of doer mentors but you can still run into trouble if you don’t use them effectively. And that generally requires that you spend a lot of time with them. And when the rate of change around you is extreme— like COVID-time for example — it is essential you are constantly with your mentors.

They need to hear the latest version of your career plan, the competition you face and the setbacks you have experienced. Ask for their comments and insights on actions you could take.

Check your calendar. If you are not setting time aside to meet a mentor at least once a week, get on it and book some appointments for the next 3 months.

You’re not keeping up

Some people fall victim to believing that there are limits to what you have to learn to achieve success; that once you have amassed a certain amount of knowledge you can stop the learning process.

It’s almost like they believe the momentum created by what they’ve learned up to now will carry them into the future.

Wrong! Success is achieved not by a ‘one hit wonder’ but by a continuous stream of accomplishments over the long term. It’s a function of consistently performing at a high level step by step, day after day.

And the only way long term a high level of consistency can be attained is by continuously learning something new; you need to find a way to stream new knowledge into your head constantly.

You tend to rely on what worked yesterday

What got you here will surely get you to where you need to go, right? After all, you’ve been successful doing certain things well and it paid off, so why wouldn’t it continue to pay off in the future?

The truth is, if your new challenge had all the properties of the past challenges you successfully defeated, then maybe you could get by with sticking to the practices that worked for you then.

But that’s not the real world. Things change and there’s no such thing as a challenge that looks the same as yesterday. Pandemics occur and completely change the landscape of the world. New competitors enter. Technology disruption happens. Customer demands change.

Nothing stays the same.

If you really think sticking to your tried and true strategy and approach to your job will keep working into an environment of constant change and unpredictability, good luck with that. It won’t — Roy, flex artist

You’re not clear on your career goal

A productive career — one that steadily advances — has a certain signature; it has clarity around the specific position an individual is targeting. And it is time specific; it has a 24-month period to achieve the objective.

For example, “I intend to be director of marketing for XYX organization by March 1, 2022” is a focused career plan objective which can inform the action plan to actually see it come to fruition.

When this clarity of purpose is missing, the actions individuals take are confused; they are not measured towards a goal and their intentions are often vague and inconsistent. People are busy but they can’t get the meaningful traction they need to make progress.

To relentlessly keep moving forward, your career game plan needs to be focused on your desired outcome. It’s the only way your actions will have purpose and can be measured for their effectiveness.

You’re not aligned with the strategy of the organization

In a perfect world, every employee in an organization is homeomorphically aligned with the game plan it has set in motion.

Each person knows specifically what is expected of them and delivers results that contribute to moving the organization forward on its chosen path. And they behave in a manner consistent with the values the organization has decided to adopt in terms of how people work together to achieve those results.

People who excel in achieving the strategic objectives of the organization typically have a successful career; those who out of alignment with them do not.

So if you sense your in the stall mode, check to ensure that your priorities are directly aligned with leadership’s strategic intent. Take the initiative to ask them if you are working on the right projects; revise your work plan accordingly.

Finally, tell leadership what you’ve done; they will be impressed and you will be climbing again sooner than you think.

You’re too picky

Do anything asked of you and do it with eagerness and an open mind. I have seen many high-potential people fall by the wayside because they were picky about what they did to the point that they refused to take on certain projects because they didn’t want to set themselves up for failure by trying to achieve something they felt they were not qualified to do.

Unfortunately, their actions were perceived as an unwillingness to help the organization achieve its strategic goals, to take on the personal risk necessary to deliver even though they may not be perfectly qualified.

And they found themselves in the camp of individuals who were never again asked to lead projects of a strategic nature; their career stalled.

The point is, upwardly mobile people are expected to overreach every once in a while, to go for something that is beyond their capability. They treat the opportunity as a source of learning and growth and are okay with the inherent personal risk involved.

Weaving your way to success through any organization is a challenge, with hazards and pitfalls awaiting you around every corner. But there are simple practical ways to avoid them and achieve the success you seek. It’s not rocket science.

Related: What School Failed To Teach Me About Good Leadership