Marshall Goldsmith, celebrated author and leadership coach, is famously quoted as saying, “What got you here won’t get you there”. Over the course of my career I’ve been amazed how many times this quote has shown up in my career or the people around me, ringing all too true.
What go you here won’t get you there. It means the work, style, approach and effort you did to get you to a certain point won’t allow you to continue succeeding and hitting the next level, promotion or milestone.
I see this happen often in two areas of business: promotions and entrepreneurs.
When we’re striving for a promotion the effort it takes to prepare oneself to get promoted often means we’re upgrading ourselves, our output, overall performance, professionalism, etc. We’re bringing more to the table in order to achieve something – a promotion. We do the job to get the job. However once the promotion occurs, it’s uncanny how often times the approach and effort we used to get the promotion isn’t what is needed to be successful in the new role.
Take for example getting promoted from an individual contributor role into your first management role. You’re a staff level (individual contributor) engineer who excels in product development and as a result you start getting noticed by upper management. You’re consistently hitting your deadlines, solutions oriented, taking on additional initiatives, finding work proactively, helping your peers, etc. These are some of the characteristics of a high performing staff level engineers. These very characteristics are what get people noticed for management consideration.
Fast forward, the stars have aligned, and you’ve accepted the promotion. You’re in management now for the first time in your career. You’re a bit nervous because you’ve never been in management before but you’re confident you’ll succeed in this role just like you did in the last role. You’ll do the same thing as before, working hard, and everything will work out.
This is the genesis of the statement by Goldsmith “What got you here won’t get you there”.
Now that you’re in management you’ll need to deploy a new set of skills in order to be successful. Some of these skills you already possess like the ability to hard work, focus on being the best you can be, attention to deadlines, leading by example, etc. However, now you also need to employ a new set of skills to make this new role work. Skills like listening, influencing, strategizing resources, planning, holding people accountable, communicating above and beyond to ensure your message and intent is understood by your team.
The key difference is the skills necessary to be successful in management are different and require more than what was necessary in the individual contributor role. You’re now responsible for people and the product, not just the product itself.
If you were to use the same approach and tactics you did to get promoted into management now that you’re in management you run the risk of struggling. Struggle leads to frustration and for some of us discontent. The snowball effect inevitably for some leads to daydreaming being back in an individual contributor role and out of management.
The same can be said for entrepreneurs.
The second area I see this happen is when entrepreneurs get in their own way of being successful.
A talented person filled with passion, enthusiasm and spirit to do something different comes up with an idea and begins to put it into action. Our entrepreneur, largely due to their work ethic and unyielding mindset to succeed can find themselves in situations where their idea, product and or company suddenly beings to grow. At times, grow rapidly.
They’ve done an amazing job taking an idea and turning into a viable reality. Outsiders begin to see the hard work and effort of this entrepreneur and want to join the party. A team is formed.
Just like that, POOF, a company is born.
In the world of medical devices this plays out as someone having a great idea to improve a patient experience or technology. They build their idea into a tangle product, secure funding and start growing the company around it. It’s a thrilling time for the entrepreneur(s) as their dreams begin to become reality.
Up to this point much of the success of the product and new company can be attributed to the founding entrepreneur(s) and their early teams. Once again, we find ourselves at a crossroads where Goldsmith’s statement ‘What got you here won’t get you there’ comes into play. As the company grows so do the expectations and requirements to hit each successive milestone.
Products need to be rigorously vetted, tested and refined to meet each new milestone. External forces, like the FDA or investors eventually get involved, adding further angst and expectation to the company and the product development process.
Many entrepreneurs find the process up to this point rewarding and exciting, yet the most challenging parts lie ahead.
The two most common goals for an entrepreneur and their start-up company in the medical device space is to either position their company for acquisition by a larger suiter, or build it up as a stand alone organization, commercializing the product for sale.
Both of these outcomes require a similar thing to happen – the company must shift and meet new expectations, new milestones and operate as a sophisticated organization. It’s no longer the wild west free flowing organization it once was at the beginning. Rules are in place, processes, procedures and increasing expectations.
Our entrepreneur, who can be credited with the early successes of the company, now needs to make a decision. Does s/he continue to lead the charge or bring in another person who is more experienced in leading companies to the next stage of life. This is an incredibly tough decision, one many entrepreneurs struggle with. Why? Two reasons: ego and the passion they had which got them here in the first place.
It’s incredibly tough to step aside from your baby (the company the entrepreneur founded) to hand off the reigns to someone else. Most people can’t do it and so they continue to lead the organization thinking they can get it to the next level. In fact, some people can indeed do this, however many struggle unnecessarily.
Staying at the helm leading the company for many entrepreneurs is a catastrophic decision.
Many entrepreneurs by their nature can be classified as A-types, controlling, visionaries, big picture thinkers, passionate types. While these are great characteristics to have, they don’t always make for the right recipe to take an organization to the next stage – mature growth.
As such, the entrepreneur chooses to stay in the driver seat continuing to lead the company with varying degrees of success.
Inevitably problems start arising within the company. The key indicator our original founder/ entrepreneur is having a hard time in the leadership ranks is their organization is flush with people problems. Attrition is high, employees are discouraged, little effort is put into going above and beyond, leaderships approach is more dictating rather than encouraging and influencing. As a result of these challenges problems start arising with the product. Issues plague the organization from all angles.
Many of us are better off being the founder, the visionary, not the CEO or chief leader growing a company through maturity.
How do we overcome Marshall Goldsmith’s statement “What got you here won’t get you there”?
We invest early in ourselves by getting a mentor!
Mentors do many things but above all they provide perspective. Mentors see the writing on the wall long before we do. Since they aren’t in the weeds and often times have an external perspective it allows them room to see all the angles.
Having a good mentor in place in crucial to anyone, regardless of their professional, but especially important for someone seeking a promotion or operating as an entrepreneur.
How do we deal with Goldsmith’s statement – we change or we get out of the way.
Mentors can help you change, help you elevate yourself, help you grow and flourish. The trick is you have to be open to the feedback. Open to change, bringing along a growth mindset.
People who operate in this capacity, open to feedback with a growth mindset, stand a much better chance making the right decisions in these key moment (promotions, entrepreneurship) rather than allowing their ego’s to write checks their bodies can’t cash.
Are you living Goldsmith’s statement today, “What got you here won’t get you there”? If so, get yourself a mentor and be prepared to face your reality. You’ll either need to adjust accordingly or get out of the way.
The effort and approach you used to get to one milestone inevitably won’t be what’s needed to help you get to the next milestone. Are you an entrepreneur? If so, get a mentor and begin building your growth mindset so you can be prepared to appropriately grow your baby (your company).
Get a mentor. It doesn’t matter what level of your career you’re at or what your role is. Spend the time now to invest in yourself for the future, even if your working future is only a couple years away from retirement. Invest now to be a better person tomorrow. Check out www.micromentor.org, it’s a free service put on by a nonprofit organization which matches people with mentors.
About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a life sciences consulting firm, providing end to end technical project services to companies which design, develop and or manufacture products in Southern California. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years specializing in engineering services, consulting, project outsourcing and leadership development. In 2019 he was recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.