Is Your ‘But’ Too Big?

If you got passed over in that last round of promotions,  say veteran managers Joe and Bob Azelby, you can probably blame your ‘but.’ That’s the little word in the middle of the sentence when people describe you at the office, as in: “Jane is a great saleswoman, but she gets so stressed out.” Or: “Beth has amazing vision, but she can’t keep track of details.”

“Everybody has a ‘but.’ The key is to know what yours is and work on making it smaller,” says Bob, who’s spent decades managing hundreds of people at California biotech giant Amgen. (Joe currently manages a team of more than 400 as CEO of JP Morgan Asset Management’s Global Real Asset Group.) Their new book, “Kiss Your ‘But’ Good-Bye: How to Get Beyond the One Word that Stands Between You and Success,” is an admittedly punny (yet no-nonsense) guide to doing just that. Bob gave us a preview.

DailyWorth: Why write this book? 

Bob Azelby: My brother and I have more than 40 years of collective experience in progressively larger management roles for two very large Fortune 500 companies. We noticed that a lot of corporate HR programs focus on playing to your strength. But when we’re in a room talking about whether someone can move up, that’s not what’s discussed. The conversation quickly goes to what the person struggles with, why they can’t get to the next level. Yet we rarely have candid conversations about these things. We thought, ‘If we can get people talking about what’s really holding them back, we can really help.’

So if you’re not getting promoted, it’s your own fault? That’s tough stuff. 

Both my brother and I see a lot of folks blaming other things for why their careers aren’t progressing. They blame management, nepotism, they get mad at the organization. That may make you feel good, but it’s really your performance relative to your peers that’s holding you back. And the only way to move your career forward is to [work on] your shortcomings.

What’s the biggest problem people have confronting their ‘buts’? 

Just acknowledging how big their ‘but’ is and how it’s really impacting other people that they work with. Most people walk around thinking, ‘Hey, no one’s telling me about it; therefore, I must be doing well.’

Keep reading for more on how to overcome your ‘but.’

How do you get answers? 

Go to your close colleagues in the organization and say, ‘Hey, what are other people saying about me?’ Ask your peers, ask a senior advisor who is in those talent review meetings. And tell them, “Be really, really candid with me.” Most managers don’t want to give bad feedback; it’s an uncomfortable conversation. So you have to really go out and get it.

You write that the shortcomings usually come down to A.P.B. What does that mean? 

Aptitude, personality or behavior. The easiest one is aptitude: If you don’t have great sales or accounting skills, you can take courses and learn. Behavior is probably the second easiest: You have to identify the trigger to your behavior and then try to adapt. That isn’t easy, but it can be done. The personality piece—like if you have mood swings or are considered arrogant—that’s probably the toughest, because it goes to the core of who you are. It’s hard to tell people how to be.

You advise telling colleagues, ‘I’m working on it.’ But doesn’t that make you look weak? 

The funny thing is, everybody in the organization already knows your individual strengths and development areas. They already know what your ‘but’ is. In fact, they probably talk about it at lunch. They laugh about it having a beer after hours. They just usually don’t mention it to you. So I actually think it’s the exact opposite. Owning it changes the dynamic: It frees you up and it puts your ‘but’ on other people, because you’re saying, “I’m working on it. Can you help me?”

Does this apply outside of corporations, say to entrepreneurs or the self-employed? 

Absolutely. No matter what your job, there are things that you do that are inhibiting your performance. If you’re an entrepreneur, you may not be selling as much as you could, or being as efficient as you could be. But you also have an advantage: If you have a small company of 20, 50, or 100 people, you can build this sort of candidness right into your culture and have much happier, more motivated employees. That’s harder to do in a company of 50,000.

You also suggest watching your boss’s ‘but.’ Why? Great leaders try to identify people that have a skill set that they don’t have. If you fill that need, then your boss is going to take you with her as she goes forward, you’re going to get great performance reviews because you’re helping the boss be more successful. And everybody wants that.

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