Lessons for my younger self
Careers’ talks are like buses. You do none for a few years, then three in a week.
And the thing about career talks is that they are an opportunity for self reflection. Because the lazy thing is to tell the people in the room the chronological sequencing of your life as if success was inevitable and progress linear. The slightly more honest thing is to share with them the uncertainties, the dead ends, the mistakes, the disappointment. The times when you really couldn’t see what comes after the bend in the road. Hindsight says the best was yet to come. But in the moment that was neither known nor knowable so what good does that story do them, other than sharing your humanity and saying hey I know how this is. Hang on in there.
But is that enough?
I think not.
Because careers and lives barely work to plan. Even if you have one. And yet as humans we need some constants. We need something to hold onto.
But if you are looking for constants, the plan, the organisation, your boss isn’t where you will find them.
The only constant is you.
And how you behave.
On the bad days.
On the back-against-the-wall days. That is the truth of you and if you do not like who you are under pressure, you have work to do. On yourself. The career progression can wait.
But while you are at it, and since you asked, there are three things that hold universally true, across all jobs I have had. Every role. Every organisation. Every hard decision and every easy one.
Here they are:
Up close opportunity always looks like hard work
I know you know.
But I also know you have worked in projects that got killed because the sponsors had underestimated their complexity. Programmes that got killed even though they were succeeding because backers had been sold a shiny PowerPoint and some great rhetoric but when the work settled into its post early glow rhythm, the realisation that you can’t magic your way to success dawned.
What do successful entrepreneurs and scientists have in common, I hear you ask?
Ok you didn’t ask.
But you should have because the answer is useful: they know what they are setting out to do. They know what they are taking on. They know it will be difficult and won’t be quick. And they do it anyway. And when they get to the messy middle, they push on.
They don’t start having meetings about pivots unless the leading indicators suggest your assumptions are wrong. And things needing work is not a thing going wrong. It’s a thing doing exactly what it is meant to. It’s how the world works.
It’s how the successful folks whose results you admire get there.
Work. That takes time and effort. And yes you should have known that at the outset.
And if you did but your sponsors didn’t, I have some bad news for you.
There is no cure for that. And no surefire why of ensuring it doesn’t happen to you again and again. You will have to roll with the punches there.
Your wishbone, your backbone and the distance between them
You know that saying: may you know your wishbone from your backbone?
The reality in business is that you make decisions all the time. And they all matter. Let me say that again. They all matter.
They don’t all feel equally momentous and it is important to remember that they actually are.
Decisions come in two shapes. The decisions you make when the world is not on fire. And the decisions you make when it is.
When the world is not on fire and moral grand standing isn’t required, do you still live by your principles? Do you still set an example? Do you still display the leadership values you talk about at conferences?
Life happens on a Tuesday.
Do all the decisions you make on a random Tuesday live up to your principles? Do you think about what you are trying to achieve (your wishbone, stay with the metaphor here folks) and challenge yourself to stay aspirational even though it’s a rough day, you are a little hungover, the tube was a mess and you are really hungry and this meeting is just the last thing between you and lunch?
Do you seek to do the right thing when just doing a thing will suffice?
Because if you don’t, the prognosis for what you will do when the world is on fire ain’t great.
You will have to make hard decisions in business. That’s where your backbone comes in.
Some of them will have no right answer.
Do we re-platform and delay our roadmap but improve performance or focus on commercial deliverables and carry our technical debt a bit longer?
That’s a question you need to weight carefully decide in a manner that is contextual and consultative as there are pros and cons to either choice.
Some decisions absolutely do have a right answer though.
Decisions that hinge on morality, integrity, ethics.
They have a right answer.
A right answer, not an easy answer.
And your career will be defined by the answers you choose.
And the person you are will be manifest in the choices you make.
People come first. Always.
When in doubt, protect the human.
What do I mean by that?
Start with the human.
Hire well. Then treat them well.
And I don’t mean pay them well.
Pay them what you can and what you agree, and accept that it will vary between organisations and geographies.
I mean treat them well. That’s the constant. How you behave.
Respect your people.
Give them the information, support and space to do their job.
Include them. Listen to them.
Give them context.
Involve them in decisions where appropriate. Explain decisions. Always.
And if you are in a layered organisation, that simple habit of explaining all decisions can be your canary in the mine.
As you get your marching orders, fight with people who forget the cardinal rule of software (pick two out of three: you can have it fast, it can be good or it can be cheap. And you have to choose at the beginning. I can’t turn the space ship into a bicycle mid build because you just woke up).
As you wrestle with what the right choice is and whether you are being pushed in the right direction from above, imagine that your next meeting is with with your team. Where you will have to announce, explain, justify your decision (or your boss’s decision). Can you, while also being true to yourself and what you know is right?
Hard news and tough decisions are miles away from bad decisions. And you will know the difference by this simple test. Can you justify the decision, hard as it may be, to your team in a way that you believe in?
If you can, they will believe too, even if they don’t like what you say.
Honestly, it could be kindergarten or (nearly) 20 years in financial services.
But what I have learned is that complicated things are hard to build and that’s ok.
Hard decisions should be easy to make, because you measure them by intent and not consequences. And if that’s not ok, you should not call yourself a leader, because nobody else will.
And whatever you do, whatever you build, whatever decisions you make, whatever challenges you face, if you remember that people are the only thing that truly matters, you will never go far wrong.
Because those very people will have your back, when the going gets tough.
You know who they are.
You know who you are.
As do I.
About the author
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!