Have you ever looked back at a period of your career where things went increasingly downhill, and wondered how you didn't see it coming? Wouldn't it have been handy to have warning signals going off while you were in the middle of your downslide? That's essentially what Jim Collins' new book, How the Mighty Fall, examines. Analyzing big corporate failures, Collins came up with five phases of decline. While the book is aimed at the lifecycle of a company, the lessons can be applied to just about any human endeavor - even a career.
  1. How the Career CrumblesHubris born of earlier success - I think we've all probably been here are one time or another. Line up a few successes, and pretty soon we develop an aura of invincibility. It's best to heed Han Solo's advice here, and "don't get cocky." Confidence is one thing. Overconfidence is another. The wise worker knows the difference between the two.
  2. Undisciplined pursuit of more - This is the ugly cousin of number one, and goes something like this: You come off of a great job straightening out the rats' nest that was the server rack, and decide you did such a great job, you should try overhauling the tech support team's call-handling workflow. And while you're at it, the company Web site is sure looking dated, so you'll learn a little HTML and CSS, and get that fixed up, too. There may be some neo-da Vincis out there with the ability to pull off such a scattershot approach, but not many. Stick to what you're good at. If you're the sys admin, be THE Sys Admin.
  3. Denial of risk and peril - Anyone that's been involved in schedule-dependent activities over the course of a career has probably seen this. You think that if you just nip here and tuck there, you'll still be able to deliver on time. Maybe you've lost a developer, but if you can just eek out an extra hour per day from the remaining team, you can still make your deadline. For the longer arc of a career, though, denial-of-risk and peril might be the Windows guy who never thought this Linux thing was going to catch on with upper management, and didn't bother getting up to speed before it was too late.
  4. Grasping for salvation - This is the search for the silver bullet once you finally wake up from the first three phases and have an inkling that you're going down. This is looking for new and groundbreaking ways to use your COBOL skills, or thinking about putting together a startup to build a Pick based killer app.
  5. Capitulation to irrelevance or death - If you haven't pulled out of the dive by phase four, you're doomed.
Fortunately, Collins shows that, as long as you take some drastic action, even getting to stage four isn't the end. This applies to your career, too. As long as you can take a candid look at where you are and what phase you're in, you can take the steps to get back to your core strengths. -- Chad Broadus