Advice for a fine career and life

By John Langhorne / Guest Editorial

Recently, I had the opportunity to teach an MBA class titled “Human Behavior in Organizations” for an Eastern Iowa university.

During the class, I invited four colleagues to individually come and visit with the class. We would begin with three or four questions and then open the conversaton for Q & A with the class. Two were from the private sector, one from a not-for-profit and one from government. In the final reviews, the students remarked that the opportunity to visit with successful senior executives was one of the best aspects of the class. As an ender, I asked them to offer three suggestions to younger colleagues about how to have a successful career and life. Although the advice varied in style, in substance there were several common elements.

First, and perhaps foremost, every guest spoke of the importance of being well-informed by reading, reading and more reading. Each commented how a continuously upgraded knowledge base was an essential ingredient in one’s personal and professional life. The necessity of keeping up-to-date in a world where jobs can be described as having half-lives was also mentioned. Coupled to the idea of keeping well-informed was the importance of taking time to reflect. This is of particular necessity in a world where the speed and level of communication means that many of us are connected all the time. In later discussions, the concept of assuring some time for quiet thought and reflection struck a cord.

A second theme was to treat people well, to be good to people. Respectfulness is a quality that is sometimes inadvertently missed in our rush to get things done. In a subsequent class, one person remarked “you sure have an interesting network.” I was amazed how good that comment made me feel. It seems natural to keep healthy bonds with those you respect. One of the guests said, “lead the whole person, be care-driven.” Interesting that a recent Gallup study on leadership showed that the No. 1 characteristic valued by people who work for and with leaders was compassion. “All interactions have two outcomes, we either build and strengthen trust or….”

Theme three was act out of purpose, stay true to your values and know what’s most important to you. Being a keen observer of people over the years and having the opportunity to see the trajectory of many peoples’ careers and lives, I have developed a strong sense of cosmic karma. People who test their behavior against a small set of powerful values seem to have lives that include a high degree of personal safisfaction.

One idea that that many in the class commented on was that everything we do is a building block in our career. The idea that a career or a life is a product of purposeful actions seemed to class members, mostly in their 20s and 30s, new and important. This may have resulted from the fact that the guests all spoke of an incident or crucible in their lives that served as a wake-up call and motivated them to reflect on and re-direct their lives. It was interesting to me that one of these was what seemed to be a small incident. However, it came at a moment when the person was ready to consider a significant change, gave it some deep thought and made it a life-living principle.

There were two more ideas, the first was to strive to maintain balance in your life. This came shortly after we discussed how there are as many as 17 family structures and most of us will experience several of these in our lives.

All of these recommendations are sound and, to those who lead successful lives, are familiar. The last idea came from a person who in his mid-career had been deeply betrayed by a someone he trusted. This crucible led him to make changes that had a profoundly positive impact on the quality of his worklife. His comment was “think of yourself as self-employed.” Food for thought.


John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at His book, “Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader,” is available at