At the end of your career, what will you value?

What will you value at the end of your career?

I once — way back in the day — wrote a post about how much people connect their self-worth to their job, and that might be a small corollary to what I’m about to discuss here. It’s this big concept: you spend a lot of your working life chasing, for lack of a better term, deliverables. These are short-term assignments/projects, and you get down in the weeds / forest + trees, and you get too deeply enmeshed with the politics of everything and … oftentimes people will have a whole career, with 1-2 or 10-12 companies, and never really consider the bigger picture of what they were doing.

That’s kind of interesting, right?

I came across this interview with Dominic Barton — big guy at McKinsey — on Wharton’s website, and it’s amazing on any number of levels. First off, he talks about failure openly. He was denied partnership at McKinsey about three times. That’s a big deal. (Apparently, the second denial was “very public.”) We almost never talk about failure at work, so this was inspiring. (That said, it’s much easier to talk about failure when you make a bunch of money and have some ownership of one of the biggest consulting brands in the entire world.)

Here’s maybe the best part, though:

“I’m a student of leadership. It’s an amazing opportunity in this role,” said Barton, stating that for the past six years, he has met with at least two CEOs or government leaders every day. He identified some common themes that emerge when CEOs reflect on their careers, which in Barton’s experience cuts across regions, industries and functions. One is that they would have “moved faster on people … taken people out faster, moved them up faster and spent more time on people…. I’ve not heard a single leader not say this [among] those that are toward the end of their career,” Barton said. He also noted that many CEOs express regret about not having been more ambitious for their organizations. From his own experience, he said, it takes a couple of years to get used to being in the role, but “if you don’t get moving, your time is up.”

Look at that middle part.

Moved faster on people.

Now pause and pivot for a second.

There’s this whole attitude you’ll hear from people who have lost — I mean death — loved ones, where they say “At the end of his life, Joe didn’t care about the money and the promotions, he cared about the experiences and the people…” Some variation of that. I’ve lost maybe 2-3 people close to me, right? All of them were like that at the end. Who needs another check? You want time and experiences and people and love and memories and all that. If you know you’re about to die, I’d assume that’s fairly powerful in terms of summarizing everything in a ball. You can really think about what matters. It’s not the money.

This is a bit of a “macro-micro” issue, right?

There’s stuff that really matters in life/work, and then there’s the stuff we focus on, because that stuff is easier. “Macro” is a hard concept for a lot of people.

OK, pause and pivot back to the quote above.

Taken people out faster … moved them up faster … and spent more time on people.

In the day-to-day of work and chasing deliverables, almost no one cares about talent strategy and people. You got projects to do! Targets! Revenue! Margin! Headcount! Growth! Innovation! Deadlines!

But then you get these CEOs, these titans of industry… and at the end of their careers, almost all their reflections and regrets are about people. The core deliverables kind of fade into obscurity over time, right? And that’s how it usually is: 10 days after I do some project (and believe me, I ain’t no CEO), I barely remember the details of it. I did it. I knocked it out. I “executed.” That’s what I do, baby! (Not really. I’m actually mostly a terrible employee, I think.) But it’s just that … it’s work, it’s a project.

It’s not about people and connections and experiences. That’s what really matters. And CEOs get that towards the end of their careers, even if the micro-details got in the way as it was happening.

Powerful message for leaders, right?


Ted Bauer


  1. There are very few fields of work that aren’t perfunctory. Many of us work in some kind of office as digital paper pushers, glorified secretaries, and the like. It’s even worse if you’re in any kind of “service” field. It doesn’t take long to become jaded and cynical about the world of work and realize that the majority of your time is spent doing things that don’t have any real meaning or significance.

    In some cases, you meet people who help alleviate the day-to-day grind, which is good. I doubt anyone on their death bed will look back on their life and wish they had worked more, regardless of their field.

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