The Right — And Wrong — Stuff: Author Interview with Carter Cast

Published on
March 26, 2018
Karina Mikhli
"Keep it simple. What you're doing either works or it doesn't and if it doesn't, try something else--and ask for feedback. This applies to the service you're selling and to the people you're managing."
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Carter Cast got blindsided at a performance review early on in his career. As someone who up until then was considered senior management material, being informed by his boss at the time that he was stubborn, insubordinate, difficult, and needed to find another position in the company was the last thing he expected. Not wanting to leave on a bad note, Carter managed to find another role in the company and through much self-awareness and work, to change his ways and regain senior management’s trust.

Although Carter saved his career from derailment and went on to several senior executive roles, including CEO of Walmart, helping others avoid career derailment has become a mission of his. He was able to help his own staff and now helps his students at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management where he teaches innovation and entrepreneurship. In his book The Right—and Wrong—Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made and Unmade, he shares this knowledge will all of us.

1. When did you first decide to become a professor and what was the motivation behind it? Did your decision to write a book stem from an academic’s need to publish or from another reason?

I have always valued education. I think that becoming a teacher has been in the back of my mind for some time—probably since I was 14 and my parents were founding members of a K-12 school (The Canterbury School) in my hometown of Fort Wayne, IN. As for my decision to write a book, well I think books are magical. I can’t believe we can get access to a person’s brain and experiences for only $20. I am a book collector and wanted to be a member of the gang.

2. Besides that early career near-derailment that you shared, you’ve worked successfully for different size companies and in different industries, and then moved to academia. How did you adjust the “right” stuff in these situations? And was it more or less challenging for you to overcome your derailment vulnerabilities in these different contexts?

In my experience, a critical factor to adjusting well to various environments—whether it’s working in a five person startup or for a large Fortune 50 company or for an academic institution—is to determine the entity’s ‘critical path’ and work in job areas that are crucial to driving that ‘critical path’ forward. What are the key activities within that organization the create customer value and distinguish you from your competition? Work to understand these activities and then try to put yourself on assignments that are along that ‘critical path.’ For example, if you work at Electronic Arts, you want to be working in and around product development, on software game development. If you’re at Frito Lay, you’re well served to work in product marketing or in trade sales. These two functions are critical in driving customer value and the company’s share price.

As for your question around overcoming my derailment vulnerabilities in different environments, I found it’s a lot easier to avoid derailment if I’m working in a culture that maps well to my inherent personality traits. Being on the irreverent side, I had to constantly self-monitor at PepsiCo, a big formal company. That environment tickled my derailment propensity of being ‘mischievous’. When I moved to a very early stage company, it felt more natural to me. I didn’t have to expend so much energy trying to behave appropriately.

3. How did you come up with the five archetypes and why five? Which of the five is the most dangerous for an individual and which one is the most dangerous for a company? Does this answer change depending on the size of the company, its culture, or industry?

Those five archetypes represent the five major reasons I found, in conducting research and reviewing all the derailment literature I could get my hands on, that stop or stall people’s careers. I created those characterizations to make the topic less grim, more accessible. It seemed easier to say, “I have a bit of Captain Fantastic in me” than saying, “I suffer from interpersonal difficulties.”

As to which are the most dangerous, I would say Captain Fantastic and Version 1.0. The Captain has ego management issues and doesn’t listen well. If you don’t listen, you don’t learn. And Version 1.0 isn’t adapting well to the ever changing world. He needs to improve his learning agility by asking more questions, getting out into the market more and observing his customer in action, developing hypotheses and running experiments, etc. Otherwise he’ll become a dinosaur and eventually a fossil.

4. As someone who personally embraced the “strength movement,” it was interesting to read your perspective on how it has failed so many managers. There’s also been a lot of writing recently about the pros and cons of performance reviews altogether. What do you believe is the ideal way for performance reviews to be given? For example, how frequent should they be, how formal, and what should their focus be on?

Wait—hold on! I’m a fan of the strengths movement. What’s not to like about a philosophy that focuses on our upside—one based on the premise that we’re happier and perform better when we understand what we’re good at and put ourselves into jobs that leverage those strengths? The problem comes when it’s taken too far and used to the exclusion of other methods of self-examination and career development. The over-reliance on “focusing on your strengths” can mask a critical skill gap or a personal blind spot that stops a talented person’s career in its tracks. The derailment research shows that careers stall more from having the “wrong stuff” (e.g., being insensitive to others) than lacking the “right stuff” (e.g., not having strong analytical skills).

As for how to give performance reviews—I’ll tell you how not to give them: ANNUALLY. Workers need a steady stream of feedback, on an on-going basis. Right after the big presentation, ask your team member, “How do you think that went? Tell me one thing you think you did well.” Then be quiet and listen. Then when they’re done speaking, you tell them one thing you think they did well. Next, ask, “What’s one thing you’d have done differently?” Then be quiet and listen. When they’re done speaking, tell them one thing you think they could have done differently. We all need feedback in the moment, not six months later. Who can remember anything about a performance event that happened six months ago? Yet we cite them in our annual performance reviews.

5. As you acknowledge in your chapter titled “You Can’t Count on ‘The Man,’” companies and bosses don’t always do right by their employees. What if someone’s career is derailing not because of his own blind spots but because he’s not a good fit for the company culture/values or his/her style is just not a good match to that of his direct supervisor? What would you recommend this person do and how common is this in comparison to derailment due to the five archetypes?

You’re absolutely right—it may not be an interpersonal issue or a skill gap that’s holding a person back—it may be that they’re not sufficiently motivated to perform because they’re in the wrong context! They could be in the wrong job, in the wrong setting. Maybe they’re at an early stage startup that’s chaotic and rewards fast action but they are by nature deliberate and prefer structure. Or perhaps they’re working for a video game developer but realize that because they value books and reading they don’t really like marketing video games to kids. I interviewed plenty of people who weren’t performing well because they didn’t sufficiently understand their motive structure—what activities and environments gave them energy. Through research, especially from David McClelland and Dan Pink, I found five motives that drive us: achievement (to meet or exceed a standard of excellence or improve one’s performance); affiliation (to maintain close relationships with people and be well thought of); power (to wield influence over others and seek positions of status); autonomy (the desire to have discretion over one’s time and work) and purpose (the desire to work on initiatives that fit one’s value system). If you’re highly motivated by autonomy but are working in a large, bureaucratic company with a lot of checks and balances, you may not perform well. If you have a strong need for affiliation but work as an independent contractor, you may feel isolated and demotivated. So it’s very important for us to work hard to understand our needs and motives so we can put ourselves in the right work context.

6. What is the one thing we can all do on a daily basis to ensure we’re not self-sabotaging our careers?

Seek performance feedback on a continuous basis from friends and colleagues who care about you and are truth-sayers.