These days, being successful in your career requires that you go beyond “just” having excellent technical skills. Having supreme competence in doing the job itself is only the beginning. But that alone is insufficient if you want to get paid, promoted, and recognized appropriately.
Go beyond technical excellence
Beyond technical excellence, you need to master the ability to work with People, to work on the Business, and to work on your Self.
And it’s by looking at the intersection and interplay between these three areas that you will find your distinct advantage. The advantage that will help attract opportunities, propel you to that next level, and keep you from getting stuck.
How, then, do you do that?
While I write about this in my new book, Accelerate: 9 Capabilities to Achieve Success at Any Career Stage, I’ve also come across an interview with Kevin Spacey conducted by HBR’s Alison Beard that provides some great wisdom from his career that demonstrates this interplay.
Learning from Kevin Spacey (yes, the Oscar-winning actor)
Now, Kevin Spacey is a great actor, and clearly successful in his career. I don’t know about you, but he’s definitely not the first person that springs to mind as needing to be a great leader, or as a role model for building your career outside of acting.
That’s why I was surprised and delighted to learn from Kevin Spacey these 7 great tips for being a leader and earning success in your career. Here they are with my added insights:
Working on the Business
1. Build it for the long term
As director of the Old Vic theater in London, he “wanted to make sure we built a company right and solidly so that when I left, it would continue.”
This is about having a bigger vision for the organization’s future, and embracing the importance of succession. Truly great leaders leave the organization in the hands of someone who can take it to the next level, rather than making it all about the “Kevin Spacey era”.
This kind of forward thinking reminds me of the architect who designed the George Washington Bridge, connecting Manhattan to New Jersey, which was at that time mostly farmland. People laughed at him for going to the extra trouble to design an extra deck that could be suspended below the initial bridge. But 40 years later, that extra deck was needed to handle the commuter traffic from the New Jersey suburbs into Manhattan.
What’s your vision for building your business for the long term?
Working with People
2. Bring the right spirit and energy
Kevin Spacey talks about learning that “when you take on a role, acting or directing, you having the responsibility to bring the right spirit and energy every day to create something with a group of people.”
This holds true beyond the creative arts. After all, don’t we all want to be part of a creative, learning and growing organization?
We can contribute to that kind of environment by bringing the right spirit and energy. One that is open to new ideas rather than shuts them down. One where we ask questions, listen, and observe. One where we show respect for each other, and make it “safe” to experiment and learn from mistakes.
What kind of spirit and energy are you bringing to work today?
3. Recognize and reward people with the opportunity to shine
When Kevin Spacey decided to move to London and run the Old Vic theater, he entrusted his former executive assistant to run the film company he had built. “It wasn’t easy, but it put (Dana Brunetti) in a position to make his own way, build his own reputation, and what he’s done has been extraordinary.”
Of course, you want to make sure your people are up to the challenge but, like Kevin Spacey’s example, there comes a time when great performance by a team member must be rewarded with an opportunity to shine.
And that means you, as a leader, being able to walk the line between stepping away to make room, and being there to support your team member and helping them to shine.
Who on your team is ready for an opportunity to shine?
4. Mentor others
Kevin Spacey says, “It’s incredible to help young people find their own self-esteem and voice and learn collaborative skills. But it’s funny: When you tell them something that’s been passed down to you, some lesson you learned a long time ago, often, in the act of saying it, you think, ‘Oh, my God. I needed to hear that. It’s really important, and I haven’t been doing it myself.’”
This one is interesting because it intersects with both working with People and working on your Self. And as you provide the team leadership to mentor those around you, you also build up your community of support – your network.
Who can you support today by passing on what you’ve learned?
Working on your Self
5. Be “no ego”, or at least “low ego”
This one seems an unlikely lesson from the acting profession, and that’s why I love it.
When asked about the collaborative approach taken to making the hit series, House of Cards, Spacey says, “…no ego enters the room. It’s all about wanting to make the best show we can. It’s not ‘What’s good for me?’ It’s ‘What’s good for us?’”
What a great example. This reminds me of my husband’s basketball team and the fundamental nature of needing to put the team’s needs above that of the individual. Otherwise, you won’t have a consistently winning team.
And by the way, I find that when I stop worrying about my own interests and how I’m going to look, my performance and contribution goes up. A lot.
Ironically, it’s usually by taking ego out of it that we gain the respect, cooperation, and support we were seeking all along. Plus, the project moves forward more successfully.
To what extent can you foster that no ego, team focused environment at work?
6. Have something at stake
When choosing projects, Kevin Spacey’s wisdom is, “With every job, you should have something to lose, something to gain, something to learn.”
In our careers, it’s vital to be working on and toward something that you care about. That’s what it means to have something at stake. For each of us, that will be something different – thank goodness, or we’d all want to do the same thing! What matters is that you put yourself in a position to work on things that matter to you.
It’s hard enough to motivate ourselves to do things that are important, so don’t waste your energy trying to motivate yourself to do something that drains you. And that doesn’t mean changing jobs – it might be reframing the way you think about the job.
For Kevin Spacey, keeping things interesting and fresh means “you have to walk in being open. I ask a myriad of questions…”
Or, as Simon Sinek says, start with why – your purpose. Then, the job may take on an entirely different light.
What’s your purpose in your work and career, and what’s at stake that excites you?
7. Know when to move on
I could really relate to Kevin Spacey’s reason for taking the big risk of leaving the film world and taking on the challenge of running the Old Vic, a theater company that had fallen off the map for 30 years.
“I didn’t want to spend another 10 years pursuing the same dream. I had done what I set out to do, and I wanted to be challenged on a different level… I never saw it as walking away from something; I saw it as walking toward something, even though at the time a lot of people thought I was… out of my mind.”
Some people have 5-7 year plans, Kevin Spacey seems to have 10 year plans. Whatever horizon you adopt, it’s important to know when it’s time to move on.
While I’m all for business continuity, that doesn’t mean doing the same thing the same way for decades. I’ve heard some say it’s time to move on when you spend less that 50% of your time learning. For me, it’s when I start getting bored and need a new challenge (which tended to be every 2-3 years during my investment banking career).
In fact, the worst thing for you and for your team is to overstay your welcome. We’ve all seen those very senior people who do a fabulous job in their roles and sign up for that one more run, then their whole legacy turns to dust. And then there are those who stay in their seats seemingly forever without growing the business, which demotivates the entire team.
If you make time to keep investing in yourself, you won’t have to fear change.
What are you doing to keep the pond fresh? How can you make room for everyone on your team to grow?
Live your life the way you want to
In addition to those 7 nuggets on being a better leader and achieving greater success in your career, the best part of Kevin Spacey’s message is this (and yes, I’ve left the best for last).
When asked how he manages to have the private life he wants when he’s a very public figure, he answered, “It’s very easy to live your life the way you want to. It’s the way I’ve always been.”
Like the Nike “Just do it” slogan, this can sound glib. But when I allowed my mind to open up to the concept, I started to realize that there’s truth in the simplicity of both statements.
It starts with seeing all the assumptions and societal norms that we construct as obstacles to having what we really want. But who says we have to do everything perfectly all the time? Who says I have to attend every school play my kids are in? Who says I must accept every assignment I’m asked to take on?
Once you start challenging conventions, it’s easier to see which are real obstacles, and which are imagined. Hint: there’s more than you think that falls into the second category, which is great.
In fact, it is essential to live your life the way you want to if you want to be a great leader, to be a great person, and to have a wonderful life.
Why? Because when we’re frustrated, it shows through. No matter how hard we try to hide it. And that makes us less effective.
So let’s be a little more like Kevin.
Now, go and live your life the way you want to live it.
And leave me a comment on what you’re going to do differently.
By the way, are you watching House of Cards this weekend?