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Former executive vice-president of Telus, educator, adviser and author of Be Different or Be Dead.

Everyone looks for a silver bullet for a successful career, that one piece of advice that if practised consistently and correctly will predict a rewarding future.

I’m not a believer in singularity, that there is one factor that explains the essence of anything in life. Ceteris Paribus – all other things being equal – is not an assumption that’s particularly helpful, since all other things are not and never will be equal.

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Attempts at formularizing messy real-world outcomes have never been particularly effective, since they rely on a degree of predictive precision that doesn’t exist when there are so many variables at play.

No one variable can accurately determine a successful career.

That said, I did develop a simple but very effective qualitative tool that was amazing in terms of helping me in my career. I called it “the magic question.”

It was probably the single most important thing I did to navigate my way successfully through several positions, eventually becoming president of our company’s data and internet organization. Of course there were other factors at play in my journey – right place right time, personal relationships, mentoring – but I am absolutely convinced that the magic question had the most influence.

Are you ready for the question? “Now that I find myself in a new position in the organization, what do I have to do differently?”

The need to ask the question is triggered by change. Whenever you find yourself in any of these common circumstances, pose the question and spend serious time answering it.

  • There has been a major organizational change, and you have been appointed to a new position.
  • You are being moved laterally to another job in the existing organization structure.
  • You are being promoted.
  • Your existing job role has been changed – you have either been given added responsibilities or the scope of your current role has been reduced.
  • You, unfortunately, have been demoted. You need to include this possibility in your thinking, even though it is unpleasant.

There are three possible outcomes in terms of how you approach the magic question.

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You don’t ask the magic question

You continue in your new role acting the same way that you have in the past, regardless of the new challenges that you face.

You assume that the things that got you here will get you where you need to get to in the future. After all, you have attained success so far by practising certain skills and competencies; why shouldn’t this work on going forward?

Momentum continues as you practice what you are used to. There is no change in your behaviour and you eventually fail.

New challenges require new thinking and new ways of doing things; repeating what got you here in an entirely new set of circumstances will simply not work.

You ask the magic question but answer it incorrectly the first time

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In this case, you are at least on the right track, having asked yourself the question, and you enter the trial-and-error process of discovering what you need to do differently to succeed in your new position. The result of your efforts might be eventual success, but it takes a while as you iterate among several possible answers to find the right blueprint.

You need to get on with finding the answers fast if you are to survive long enough to see the final result.

You ask the magic question and you nail the right answer the first time

You discover and successfully execute the essential thing you needed to do differently to be effective in your changed position.

Your bosses and others in the organization are amazed by how quickly you adapt and learn in the face of a new challenge.

The results of your efforts produce success, not only in terms of your productivity in the new position but also in the growth of your personal currency for future advancement in the organization.

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The magic question process is not an easy one. It requires honest self-analysis, development of options and selection of a path that you believe will yield the success you expect. Be prepared to modify it on the go as the results come in.

Use the results of your 360-degree feedback program to decide what you have to do differently. Be prepared to make agonizing decisions that place you at personal risk but have faith that it will work out for you.

The magic question requires dedication and discipline. You can’t casually approach it; you must be all-in, otherwise don’t waste your time. In every leadership position I held, I coached my team to employ this process; the ones who chose to do the work were rewarded.

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