Young executives often complain of boredom in the work place. Whether it is the repetitive nature of the job, the monotony of seeing the same people daily or being in a business that tends to follow a predictable pattern, the feeling of boredom can happen, prompting some of us to think of changing jobs. But we also keep hearing of corporate soldiers who have been in the same trenches for an entire lifetime with no signs of ennui. So what is this all about?
As I teach at a Business School, I meet many aspiring and budding young professionals and have met many seasoned corporate campaigners during my career. Here are a few things I’ve learnt about workplace boredom.
Firstly, a lot of young MBAs assume that there is much more to learn in the next, new assignment than in the current role. Even before they have learned the nuts and bolts of their job and made any serious contribution, executives want to plan their next role. When ex-students who are a few years into their career call me to complain of stagnation and dullness, I always ask two questions
1) Are you delivering 100%++ of your business targets? And
2) Are you widely regarded in your company as the subject matter expert in your assigned area of work?
If your answer to these two questions is Ho-Hum, then it isn’t boredom. Actually, you may not be meeting the firm’s required performance standards and you’re probably not operating at full potential. Subconsciously, you’ve realized this, and your search for a new role is to escape your current reality.
I’ll concede that some jobs can be mechanical and once mastered, may no longer be challenging and stimulating. Some companies don’t have a cross-functional job rotation policy, so eventually moving out might be better than getting stuck in one function indefinitely. In most instances, though, there is no limit to what you can learn about and beyond your current job.
During the early years of my career, I worked in Marketing at Parle Products and was based at the factory in Bombay. This proved to be an incredible experience because I roamed around the entire plant and learned endlessly about logistics, manufacturing, Purchase (before someone invented the term Strategic Sourcing) and scheduling of machine changeovers among other things. Does all this have anything to do with Marketing and brand building? Not directly, but it made me empathetic to the challenges faced in different functional areas which proved useful in my later roles.
Net, there is no limit to what you can learn to equip yourself with deep knowledge of everything connected to the business you are in. If you do, then the next time they look for a General Manager, you would be a better candidate than the Brand Manager who knows only a narrow slice of what drives the P&L.
Which brings to me a myth about professional experience – that width is always better than depth.
Most of us aim for a diverse range of professional experiences, jumping to something new every 18 to 24 months. But too much of that can hurt you when middle and senior level positions open up. Invariably companies opt for talent having a strong record of delivering results rather than candidates who have had broader exposure but virtually no tangible “wins” or “contributions”. To be clear, contributions are usually measured in terms of incremental sales, profits and market shares. That’s the long list. Breezy stuff like authoring a great strategic plan is not a contribution unless you have delivered results per your plan. And you can’t deliver sustained business growth if you are planning your next farewell even before the ink has dried on your visiting cards.
Over a long career of thirty to forty years, broad exposure across multiple functions, product categories, industries and geographies are highly sought and valued. Most successful CEOs have enormous breadth of professional experience. On closer examination though many of them have done significant time in one or two core businesses, lived through multiple boom-bust cycles, seen how improved technology disrupts entire categories and weathered every possible storm. That didn’t come from having weekly lunches with every executive search firm in town.
And that is the real lesson for the young aspiring leader. It is vital to build a deep understanding of a few businesses and demonstrate mastery of their every facet and dimension. This expertise gets leveraged when you move to a different business. The principles of business don’t change. Brands, distribution channels, production processes, etc. will not be the same in two segments. But the broad underlying business rules and principles will rarely differ. Having these principles engraved in your professional DNA makes you a valued human resource, worthy of only the best companies. That comes from time in the job.
Eventually, every job, assignment or role teaches you something and lets you make a positive impact if you invest the time and energy. Mastering your job is hard work requiring commitment, grit and courage. Analyzing each part of the business in detail and knowing all the nuts and bolts will lead you to excel in the bigger game. If you’re immersed in the business in totality, there really won’t be a dull or boring moment.
As Bruce Lee said
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
So, dive in.