Every once and a while, particularly if you are operating in a management position, I think it’s important to sit back and reflect on how you might have come to be where you are today. Now, inevitably one’s memory of the course you’ve travelled may be slightly hazy, indeed you might have a slightly different take on events to your colleagues. Whatever the case, I think that it’s likely there will be one major factor in your career rise and, to my mind, it’s not only important to acknowledge it but it should also have a major impact on how you manage and work with colleagues.
Firstly, let me outline a recent experiment I read about which I think shows the importance of this factor. It was undertaken by a couple of researchers in the University of California psychology department and they asked for students to put themselves forward for an experiment.
On presenting themselves to the researcher the students were split into groups of three, determined by sex. Three groups of men or three groups of women and they were asked to solve a particular moral problem, for example, how could drinking be controlled on campus. The researchers identified – completely arbitrarily – one of each group as the leader and left them to get on with it.
30 minutes later, the researchers returned to each group with a plate of four cookies. Now of course, each person took one cookie, leaving one left. And this was the part of the experiment that interested the researchers – who would get the fourth cookie? Would it be shared? Would it be left there? Well, none of the above, in fact what happened in most cases was that the student who had been deemed ‘the leader’ took the fourth cookie, one assumes because they felt that as leader they deserved it.
Now, this experiment is of great interest to me, because it seems to show that even though the student had been picked completely randomly – this was nothing to do with their skill set, communication skills, ability – they still felt they deserved the greater ‘reward’. Cast your mind back to your own experiences over the years, and I’m sure you can think of a number of colleagues who perhaps found themselves in exactly this position but seemed unable to countenance the fact that some of their rise, and the job they held, was clearly down to a large dollop of luck.
I’ll be the first to admit that luck has played a significant part in my own career, not just in being at the right place, at the right time, but also in terms of the jobs I’ve taken on, the timing of my leaving those roles, the people I have met, the colleagues I have worked with, the list goes on. Sometimes it seems that my career has been based on a series of lottery tickets which came good and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging this because, if you do, it should also make you a better employer/manager/whatever the senior position you hold.
Of course you might argue that this isn’t actually luck – it’s actually being in the right position, being at the juncture where both opportunity and your own preparedness meet, and being able to take advantage of that. And a small part of me thinks you’d be onto something, but I’d also say that most of it is actually plain luck, and it’s having the ability to recognise and ride this luck, so that it takes you where you want to go.
So, how does this fit into management? Well, like the fantastic writer, Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short, The Blind Side) said, if you’re willing to acknowledge your luck then that should make you act better, particularly to those who have not been as lucky as you. He said that, given you are lucky, you’re probably going to be presented with plenty of ‘extra cookies’ in your lifetime. When this happens you may well feel you deserve to take them, however the best option would be to (at the very least) pretend you don’t deserve it and instead, share that ‘cookie’ with those around you or even give it to the one person who you feel may have been particularly ‘unlucky’. Lewis believes this will make both the workplace, and the world, a better place.
The cynics amongst you might believe this to be rather ‘airy fairy’ but I believe there’s a lesson to be learned here. For a start, no-one secures their position on their own – I have been very fortunate to work at good companies with some amazing people, and that certainly makes me lucky. I would doubt there are many of you out there who don’t feel the same, to at least some degree, and if that’s the case then it should perhaps allow you to both take on board and act on Lewis’ advice. I know I will.
Bob Young is chief executive officer of Fleet Mortgages