This Magic Question Is the Secret Sauce in Your Career

Everyone looks for a silver bullet to have a successful career; the one piece of advice that if practised consistently and correctly will result in a rewarding future.

I’m not a believer in singularity; that there is one factor that explains the essence of anything in life.

Ceteris Paribus — all other things being equal — is not an assumption that’s particularly helpful in most instances because all other things surrounding any particular issue or challenge matter are NOT and never will be ‘equal’.

Attempts at formularizing messy real world outcomes have never been particularly effective since they rely on a degree of predictive precision — y = f(x) — that doesn’t exist when there are so many random variables at play.

No one variable can accurately determine a successful career.

That said, I did develop a simple but very effective qualitative tool that was amazing in terms of helping me in my career; I called it ‘the magic question’.

In retrospect, it was probably the most useful thing I used to successfully navigate my way through several positions in the organization to eventually reach president.

Of course there were other factors at play in my journey — right place-right time, personal relationships, mentoring — but I am absolutely convinced that the magic question had the most influence.

Are you ready for the question?

‘Now that I find myself in a new position in the organization, what do I have to do differently?’

The need to ask the question is triggered by change. Whenever you find yourself in any of these common circumstances, pose the question and spend serious time answering it.

  • There has been a major organization change and you have been appointed to a new position;
  • You are being moved laterally to another job in the existing organization structure;
  • You are promoted to a higher level role;
  • Your existing job role has been changed; you have either been given added responsibilities or the scope of your current role has been reduced;
  • You, unfortunately, have been demoted to a lower level position in the organization. You need to include this possibility in your thinking even though it is unpleasant;
  • You’re a small business owner that’s just expanded into a new market.

There are 3 possible outcomes in terms of how you approach the question.

You don’t ask the question

You continue in your new role acting the same way that you have in the past irrespective of the new challenges that you face.

You assume that the things that got you here will get you where you need to go in the future. After all, you have attained success so far by practicing certain skills and competencies; why shouldn’t this work on a going forward basis?

Momentum continues as you practice what you are used to. There is no change in your behaviour and you eventually fail.

New challenges require new thinking and new ways of doing things; repeating what got you here in an entirely new set of circumstances will simply not work.

You ask the question but answer it incorrectly the first time

In this case you are at least on the right track having asked yourself the question, and you enter the trial and error process of discovering the essential things you need to do differently to succeed in your new position.

The result of your efforts might be eventual success, but it takes a while as you iterate among several possible answers to find the right blueprint.
You need to get on with finding the answers FAST if you are to survive long enough to see the final result. What you learn from your first one or two attempts is crucial to your eventual success.

You don’t have the luxury of pondering what changes to make in your strategy for very long, so do a quick study of what isn’t working, then act quickly to implement what you think you learned and monitor the impacts. Then move quickly to another tactic if you see more shortfalls.

You ask the question and you nail it

You discover and successfully execute the essential thing you needed to do differently to be effective in your changed position.
Your bosses and others in the organization are amazed how quickly you adapt and learn in the face of a new challenge.

The results of your efforts produce success not only in terms of your productivity in the new position but also in the growth of your personal currency for future career advancement in the organization.

‘The magic question’ process is not an easy one; it’s arduous and time consuming. It requires honest self analysis, development of options and selecting a path that you believe will yield the success you expect. And being prepared to modify it on the run as you experience results.

Use feedback you receive from your boss, colleagues and those that report to you to decide what you have to do differently.

Be prepared to make agonizing decisions that place yourself at personal risk, but have faith that it will work out for you.

The question requires dedication and discipline. You can’t casually approach it; you must be all in otherwise don’t waste your time.

In every leadership position I held, I coached my team to employ this process to enhance their career; the ones who chose to do the work were rewarded.