At a recent mentoring event, I asked potential mentees what they wanted to do. Their response changed my thinking about the value of one’s job title. I concluded that one should focus on adding value to one’s name and not just a title at the end of it.
What’s in a Name? Why Adding Value Is More Important Than a Job Title
Life begets life. Energy creates energy. It is by spending oneself that one becomes rich.
– Sarah Bernhardt
One by one they sat down across from me, each allotted 15 minutes to gauge the potential mentoring relationship that could be fostered between us. It was speed dating applied to mentoring.
This was my first exposure to anything of the kind. I was nervous, especially being on the mentor side of the table for the first time.
We exchanged ideas, personal stories, and goals for close to two hours. I hadn’t talked so much in a long time, and the event left me depleted. It didn’t occur to me until much later how that event mentally affected me. Those bright-eyed early-career youths reoriented my idea about value, and all of it was predicated on a very simple question: “What do you want to do?”
What do you want to do?
It was the first question I asked all prospective mentees. The first thing that surprised me was how clearly stated the responses were, as though well-rehearsed in front of a mirror. The second was how thematically similar they all were.
A typical response went a little something like this: “I want to be in an executive leadership position to make high-level decisions while weighing both engineering and business needs.”
Nothing wrong with that response.
Surely, if I had been in their position a few years back, that might have been my answer, too. Ambition isn’t a crime after all. It’s actually a great quality as it provides the drive to continuously push forward. But, having been around the professional working environment for a decade, there was something about the finality of those answers that gave me pause. Why didn’t their response give me satisfaction? Why did they all want to be executive leaders right out of the gate?
Shifting from gain to growth
I thought about this for a few days. Finally, it dawned on me that what I really wanted to hear was someone striving to add value to the team and products we were producing, instead of just a personal end-game outcome. It bothered me that they were so focused on adding an important title to the end of their name — and that anything short of that would be a disappointment.
I would have given my all if someone had responded, “I want to learn as much as I can and be able to contribute meaningfully to the team that’s going to produce the safest, most reliable, and most efficient airplane ever built.”
First, this signifies a shift in mindset from focusing on career growth to one of competency growth. I would argue that aspiring to understand the technical aspects of your job, mastering the skills required, and executing the work statement would naturally result in steady or even exponential career growth. However, laying that foundation takes time. But shouldn’t a great leader take the time to truly understand the work before he can make sound decisions that affect such work? This isn’t to say that one should let their career meander about freely. They must guide it, but he or she ought not to let it consume them entirely.
Shifting from me to we
Second, this refocuses one’s effort from individual career advancement to team success. This is especially important from the employer’s perspective. The business depends on each cog of the machine performing its functions as intended. While your individual career growth is important, it shouldn’t come at the expense of the team or project.
There’s a cartoon that speaks to this directly. It depicts a sinking boat. On one end, two guys frantically bail water gushing in from a hole on their side of the boat. On the other end, two guys leisurely watch. One of them offers a delightful observation, “I’m sure glad the hole isn’t in our end.” The point being, if the boat sinks, all four of them will be under water.
Helping the team succeed isn’t a detriment to your own growth. There’s no “I” in “team,” as the saying goes. But in fact, it would only bolster your personal success. People tend to gravitate towards individuals on the “winning team.”
Add value to your team and you will flourish
Finally, the grand idea behind that statement is to add value. If you really think about it, what you do isn’t about you at all. It’s about the people who will consume your products, services, or ideas. You add value when the end user extracts something useful and meaningful out of what you’re offering. Speaking generally, being a director or vice president of a company doesn’t equate necessarily to adding value. A director adds value when he makes sound decisions that lead the company to offer excellent products to its customers. When you continually add value to your company, your career should flourish.
I challenge you to think about how you can add value to your team. And if you have a job interview ahead of you, think about how you can help that business satisfy its customers’ needs. That value-adding mindset might be the difference.
In the end, this mentoring matching experience redefined my thinking and approach: focus on adding value to your name, not just a title at the end of it.