- Wise Words -
Luck. The Career Multiplier
*writer opted for anonymity
I believe that luck is a deciding factor in every successful career or venture. I am not alone in thinking this and it’s hardly a new thought, the Romans way, way back in 293 BC had the God Fortuna, the god of luck, of good fortune. In this column I want to talk about how chance encounters and lucky decisions by others have been the thing that’s helped me grow professionally. Sometimes, even, the decisions of others that have gone against me have turned out to be right for me, once of course, the future reveals itself!
This is not to say that if we want to be successful, we can just rest on our laurels. We need to work hard, be talented at what we do, manage our network and the rest of it, to allow us to take advantage of our lucky breaks. That said if we are doing all the right things and still pushing at a closed door, it can just be that our timing is wrong. That the Universe is, temporarily, against us. My goal in writing this short column is to take some of the pressure off us as we deal with today’s uncertainties where so much is out of our control.
Here are some areas where Fortuna has been kind to me:
Becoming a People Manager: Like many people who want to “get ahead”, becoming a people manager was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to lead a team, have more impact on a business and grow professionally. Just because I wanted it, didn’t mean it happened.
I had been trying to become a team manager with direct reports for at least 12 months. I had interviewed for roles and been told that while I had performed well, as we were in the 2008 financial crisis hiring managers didn’t want to “take a bet” on someone who had never managed before. It was a slog of interview rejection and a disheartening one at that. It felt like I was pushing against a closed door.
Fortuna was on my side though. A former manager invited me to a Holiday party and guess what? I randomly ran into another former manager who asked what I was looking for in my next role and when I told him, he responded by saying “I have a role reporting to me, managing a team and you can be based in NYC or stay in Washington DC. Do you want it?”. That was the extent of the interview.
Of course, I leapt at the opportunity and this led to a fabulous time in New York City where I grew my career by managing larger and larger teams. It was hard work and I put in the hours. As a new team-lead I am sure I made mistakes, but I was lucky to have a great manager who saw my potential and helped develop me. My first shot at being a manager, despite feeling I was late to it (33 years-old) allowed me to show that I could be an effective leader and only 3.5 years later I was a Senior Vice President at a major media company.
If it hadn’t been for a chance, social, encounter with a former manager who trusted my skill set and supported me as I moved into a leadership role, I am not sure when I would have had the chance to show that I could lead and all the opportunities that succeeding at it gave me.
Getting out of dodge: Careers, like life, are up and down. At one point in my time in NYC I experienced some bad luck, in that an exciting tech business I had joined was put up for sale in my second week there. The sale brought some opportunity to me as I was involved in meetings with the acquiring company's leadership team. It was also difficult as the new owners backtracked on the statements and assurances they had made to us during the sale process around the leadership team being "great".
A few weeks after we were sold, my manager who ran the company was let go, despite him being the person who knew the business, was supported by his team and a strong leader. In addition, the promises around greater financial backing for the company were also not being kept with multiple members of my team being laid off, sometimes with no prior notice to me or their managers.
It was a worrying time. I guess you may think I was unlucky (I certainly did!). I knew I needed to get out as I had no trust in the new owners and thought that I was also likely to be “disappeared” in the near future.
As luck would have it, I was attending a conference out in California and a senior leader who I had worked with five years earlier was on the same flight. Of course, he was at the front of the plane and I was back in Economy so I sent him an email: “You go any jobs?”.
“Yes. I need someone like you to run two teams I need to fix. Let’s talk when we land.”
Over a glass of wine in the February desert sun, we discussed the opportunity, his needs for someone coming on board and we agreed that there was a good fit. I would love to say that there were no follow-up interviews as there had been back in 2008, when I got lucky. There were and they ultimately led to a job offer.
Had I not been on the same flight, thought to email the former leader, had he not just started in a new role that required new personnel to support him, had it not been insert x,y and z then I would not have got out of a sinking position and into a truly great company. The company where I landed allowed me to have the most rewarding professional experiences of my career working with a fabulous bunch of people at a great tech business where, for the first time in my life, my stock options were actually worth something! I feel truly lucky to have had the experience.
When being unlucky turned out being really lucky: I have also been fortunate to have been rescued from unlucky situations by having my plans foiled. Back in the olden, Pre-Covid days I was working for a fabulous New York City-based start-up as a remote employee in London. I was seeking a path back to the dynamism of the US business world and away from the conservatism of the UK tech space (maybe a column on that at a later point!). The CEO and Founder wanted me to run a key team.
Of course, I said yes! I was exceptionally happy. It was a job I knew I could do at a company that I respected and wanted to be involved in.
Unfortunately, the President of the company who would have been my manager didn’t want to hire someone with my skillset and experience. At the time it was exceptionally disappointing for my wife and I.
By March, the fact we had not moved turned out to be a blessing in disguise. With Covid-19 raging and the economy under stress, much of the company was laid off. Had I moved back home to NYC, I would have been unemployed and living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Panicking.
So, if you are “ahead” and “crushing it” like I was (for a time – I am in a Covid-lull right now), I hope that you are able to recognize that it is the combination of your talents as well as luck that got you “there”. More importantly, if you are in a tight spot now or in the future, I hope that you don’t beat yourself up as, in the words of Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, “Don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.”