Two entrepreneurs started on a journey in 1998 that would lead them to create one of the most successful and iconic companies of the digital age. Their idea was simple; create a system for transferring money using Palm Pilots and other wireless devices. They observed that there were many petty transactions, especially among acquaintances, that required dealing with counting out dollars and cents or writing a check. Who wouldn’t want to send $10.83 with a couple of button pushes when splitting the dinner bill with friends rather than counting out change? They received a large amount of funding from Nokia and they developed a working product very quickly. Unfortunately, there was almost no traction in the market place.
The entrepreneurs began to realize that consumers were not yet comfortable sending money electronically – so they devised a plan to setup a website where people can test out the service and see how a transfer could take place and, generally, get more comfortable with the idea. Much to their surprise, the website was not only successful in teaching people how to transfer money online but it became the medium of choice among consumers of that time. So much so, that they abandoned the wireless idea completely and focused their full attention on the website, paypal.com.
What can this story teach us about managing our careers?
If you ask anyone in a high level leadership position, they will tell you that their journey into that position was not typical. There were many unique situations that they navigated and they simply happened to land into this top position today. The one commonality you will find among these leaders is this skill of flexibility – because they recognize that planning is important but at the end of the day opportunities will come up and the ones that are able to walk away from a well laid out plan that might have taken years to perfect are going to be the most successful.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with a senior leader in a large multinational corporation and asked him about his journey to his current role. He started working for the company almost 20 years ago in South Africa as a technical consultant –a typical entry level position. He took his work seriously and quickly recognized the areas where he could add value and where he needed to grow. He was never afraid to take risks – even if it meant sometimes going into situations where he was uncertain if he could he could succeed. He was doing well in his role and was slowly climbing the ranks in his region – when one day he received a call and was asked if he would like to move to the USA to lead a large technical project that was in trouble. He had a weekend to decide to move his entire family half way across the world to be put in a position ripe for failure. He took the new role because he knew that sometimes the biggest challenge is also an opportunity and if nothing else it would be a great learning experience. He was able to turn the project around and from that point on he continued to get prime projects that had high visibility in the company and continued to build his personal brand internally and externally. Eventually, another phone call came – he was asked to lead a billion dollar business segment and then another phone call that put him in the corporate suite. The path was unique but the key was flexibility.
When navigating your career keep the following in mind:
1) Don’t be afraid of challenges – these are the best opportunities to show your talents and create differentiation.
2) Do what you love but understand that in order to grow you sometimes have to put yourself in situations that are uncomfortable.
3) Make plans but don’t be afraid to throw them away and start over.