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The Law of the Lid Part II – The intractable definition of career success

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Surprised to see Lady Gaga at the front of the Fast Company list of the top 100 creative people for 2010? – well, maybe not.  A little more reasonable is number two on the list – Eddy Cue  ( read it )

Steve Jobs may own the limelight, but Eddy Cue, 46, holds the key to the Apple kingdom. Cue runs arguably the most disruptive 21st-century Web businesses: iTunes and the App Store, the latter of which is poised to create a $4 billion app economy by 2012. The unassuming Cue shot up through Apple’s ranks in the late ’80s, going from desktop support to Hollywood power broker, cutting deals for movies and music. Cue’s next campaign will be challenging Amazon’s Kindle dominance, with the Cupertino cocktail of the iPad and the iBook store.

It’s good to see someone who made it from “desktop support” to Apple Vice President.  That is quite a trip – from helping someone with their desktop hardware or software to leading a part of the Apple enterprise that is projected to tap a market to generate $4 billion in revenue.

If Eddy is 46 years old now as Apple VP in 2010, and if he started out in the 1980’s as desktop support – then that is a nearly 20+ year career journey.  Good for him!

The intractable definition of career success

It’s amazing the diversity of the definition of career success.  If Eddy, at 46, was still a desktop support person, would he be considered a failure?   Is there a “right way” and a “wrong way” when it comes to careers?  How and why is Eddy Cue, at 46, a Vice President at Apple and not a desktop support person? 

Is preference for progress or personal achievement an  unfair bias?

Is it an unfair bias to say that people “must” have a career progression – and if not, they have failed in their careers?  What about the “bias” of progress in history?  Is it a foregone conclusion that we must see progress in culture and history?  What if the colonization of America by Europeans resulted in the Europeans taking on the culture of native american indians and keeping the status quo?

If America was, in 2010, simply a static repetition of the native american culture and “progress” that we see today in 2010  (science, culture, technology) was erased then would America be a “failure” against its potential?  What makes one way better than another way?  If America never landed a man on the moon, never became a superpower, never built great cities, or did anything that America is known for, would it be considered a failure aginst its potential?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Are personal careers like the progress of a nation or culture?  Is “progress” demanded, and is it “natural”?  And if the progress in your career is like the progress of history and culture then is the lack of progress considered some sort of failure?  A failure of ability to achieve potential.  Again, why is “progress” better than no progress?  What about mediocrity?  What’s so bad about mediocrity – or just being “average”? It certainly takes less effort to be average than it takes to be remarkable?  Why be remarkable?  What drives people toward achievement?  And, why is mediocrity acceptable, and preferred, by some people?

If the worldwide global culture was still “swinging in the trees” would it matter?  Or, is there something “natural” in human being that progress is natural, and that lack of progress is somehow to be avoided,  undesirable, and to be discouraged?

The Law of the Lid,  and the Law of the (other) Lid

The greatest danger for most of us is not that we aim too high and we miss it, but we aim too low and reach it. – Michelangelo

Read our article on John C Maxwell’s Law of the Lid

Maxwell’s Law of the Lid says that the limit of an organization is the limit of the capacity and capability of its leaders.  To make the point, Maxwell tells the story behind the story of the McDonalds corporation.  To sum it up, if it was left up to the McDonald brothers – Dick and Maurice McDonald then “McDonalds” would have never become the global corporation that it is today (providing jobs to 400,000 people; 31,000 locations; and $23B in revenue).  Without Ray Kroc, who provided the vision and business acumen, McDonalds would have remained a mom and pop operation under the vision of Dick and Maurice.  The limit of an organization is the limit of its leaders.  Are we still saying “So, what?”

The Law of the other Lid

Do something that really turns your crank – Jack Welch, former CEO of GE

So lets say, like Eddy Cue, you really do want to get ahead.  What can stop you?  Plenty!

There is another sort of lid.  Maxwell’s lid is about the lid on corporate achievement caused by individuals.  What about the lid on individuals achievement caused by the corporation? 

Could Eddy Cue go from Desktop support person to Apple Vice President in 20 years if it was not for the Apple culture?  Was it the corporate culture that made Eddy’s career achievement possible?  Was it a sort of symbiotic relationship?   If Eddy worked elsewhere, at 46 years old, would he still be a desktop support person?  I think Apple’s culture and the emphasis on achievement and excellence had a lot to do with Eddy’s career achievement.

Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected – Steve Jobs, Apple CEO

Here’s the point.  If you really do what to get ahead in your career you have (at least) two lids to contend with – Your own lid and the lid of your organization.  Do you work in an organization of achievement and excellence or one where “just getting by” is acceptable?  Do you work in a culture that is a meritocracy or a culture of entitlement?  Does your company have a succession model and talent management programs?  If not, this may be a second lid that you can not overcome at this corporation.  Your next move is probably to leave this organization for an organization that actively manages succession and talent.

Talent Management at Dow Chemical

Here is how it works at Dow Chemical

The Dow executive management team consists of the CEO and fourteen direct reports. Dow also has a Workforce Planning group and a Corporate Operating Board.  The CEO and these groups collectively manage Dow’s succession planning and talent management programs.

Dow’s succession and talent management system tracks three groups:

  1. Corporate Critical Roles.  There are 70 corporate critical roles.  These global roles are absolutely critical to the company’s success.  These roles are not expected to change over the short-term.  The CEO and the 14 direct reports manage the succession of these 70 corporate roles
  2. Global Leadership job family.  There are 250 roles in the Global Leadership job family.  The executive management team manages development, compensation, and placement for individuals in this job family.
  3. Future Leaders.  This is a group of 800 to 900 individuals that have been selected to be developed to take on business and functional roles in the organization.

Got that last group?  Future leaders.  800 to 900 people in the pipeline that are actively managed in their careers.  These folks get special treatment which could be anything from “stretch assignments”, to in-house corporate training, to assistance with tuition toward earning an MBA.

If you really so want to get ahead and the company you work for does not have such a talent pool that is actively managed then you might re/consider your strategy because you career progression could be a random walk to nowhere at this corporation.

From Desktop Support to Vice President at Apple

The story of Eddy Cue is a great story for these reasons:

  1. Many technical people have a single-minded focus on technology and never add ancillary skills to it.  That is, if technical folks only know technical material and never develop any business or organizational skills they will reach career termination at a senior technical position.  They will bump up against this ceiling, never breaking into their first management job until they appreciate and develop business and people-management skills.  Eddy Cue, starting out in desktop support,  got beyond a purely technical career.  It should also be noted that from desktop support to Apple VP is in no way a “linear” progression.  If anything, a career path like this is more one of discontinuities and transformations than the linear progression of a technical role.  And path of discontinuities is what is needed to progress from a technical role to executive corporate leadership.
  2. The law of the first (Maxwell) Lid,  Eddy Cue’s “lid” did not prevent him from earning the Vice President role.
  3. The law of the second lid (Organization). Eddy had the good fortune of being in the achievement-oriented Apple Culture.
  4. Eddy avoided the typical career derailers.  Career derailers are neither technical or business – they are behavioral.  Behavioral career derailers are land mines on an otherwise predictable path of business and technical career progression.

The Take

The take is easy.  Lady Gaga is #1 on the Fast Company list of the most creative people for 2010.  Eddy Cue is #2.  Both are amazing stories of success in vastly different career paths.  As for Eddy, from desktop support person to Apple Vice President in 20 years should be a model for anyone – at least anyone that still believes in this (seemingly) diminishing virtue of achievement. 

Eddy’s 20 year career journey beat Maxwell’s Law of the Lid, the Law of the 2nd lid (limits on personal careers due to the organization), and Eddy managed to avoid the significant behavioral career derailers that would otherwise have left him in the ditch.  Good for him.

If you want to get ahead, watch the lids, the derailers, and get yourself on the talent bench and embedded in your companies career development programs.  Without the latter, anything less, could be a random walk to nowhere.


Many companies have talent management programs.  Here is some info I have on Bank of America from several years ago.  First a list of Bank of America career derailers along with leadership competencies.

The five areas of  competencies are: (details of each is shown below)

  1. Grow the Business
  2. Lead People to Perform
  3. Drive Execution
  4. Sustain Intensity and Optimism
  5. Live Our Values

Even though these are specific to Bank of America, these derailers and leadership competencies are similar in many companies.

Bank of America Career Derailers

Failing to deliver results

  1. Fails to hold self and others accountable for results
  2. Overpromises and underdelivers

Betraying trust

  1. Says one thing and does another
  2. Makes excuses or blames others
  3. Shades, manages, withholds information to promote his or her personal or functional agenda

Resisting change

  1. Has trouble with adapting to new plans, programs, or priorities

Being an exclusive vs. inclusive

  1. Fails to understand and take into  account others perspectives
  2. Devalues the opinions and suggestions of others
  3. Fails to engage others with different perspectives or skills other than himself or herself

Failing to take a stand

  1. Is indecisive
  2. Stays on the fence on tough issues; won’t weigh in until boss weights in

Over leading and under managing

  1. Let’s details fall through the cracks
  2. Fails to get involved with the detail workings of the business unit


Bank of America Leadership Competencies and Behaviors

1. Grow the Business

Demonstrates deep and broad business acumen

  1. Demonstrates deep/broad financial management and functional skills
  2. Demonstrates a business perspective that is much broader than one function or unit
  3. Cuts to the heart of complex business and financial issues

Creates competitive and innovative business plans

  1. Creates competitive and innovative business plans that drive short and long-term growth
  2. Challenges the status quo to grow the business
  3. Focuses on growth opportunities and capital efficient investments
  4. Reinvents the business

Builds customer-driven environment

  1. Ensures the customer perspective is at the forefront of all business decisions and initiatives
  2. Invest time in customer facing activities to understand their needs
  3. Instills customer focus in all associates
  4. Institutionalizes error-free quality processes
  5. Champions and leverages six sigma tools to drive revenue, reduce costs, and add value
  6. Holds all associates accountable for continuously improving processes

Excels at risk/reward trade-offs

  1. Thoroughly analyses opportunities and  issues and then takes appropriate risks
  2. Takes action to mitigate and minimize liabilities, while ensuring maximum returns

2. Lead People to Perform

Align enterprise capabilities

  1. Transcends silos to achieve greater enterprise results
  2. Drives collaboration among individuals and groups
  3. Leverages teams to drive performance

Recruits and grows great talent

  1. Acts as a champion for diversity, creating an environment that values diverse backgrounds and perspectives
  2. Is superb at selecting “A” players
  3. Moves quickly to address mediocre/poor performance
  4. Willingly takes risks on high potential high performers to stretch and develop them
  5. Inspires commitment and followership
  6. Paints a compelling picture of the future and connects that individual associates
  7. Creates positive energy in the face of challenges
  8. Inspires others to follow his or her lead

Communicates crisply and candidly

  1. Balances taking and lisening to foster candid dialogue
  2. Crisply gets his or her point across
  3. Commands attention across multiple audiences

3. Drive Execution

Instills management focus and discipline

  1. Implements practices and processes that drive accountability
  2. Translates strategies into specific goals, tactics, action plans, and deliverables
  3. Keeps people focused

Builds partnerships to achieve a swift adoption

  1. Builds broad-based business relationships across the organization
  2. Skillfully influences peers and colleagues to promote and sell ideas
  3. Brings to the surface and resolves conflict with minimal noise

Demonstrates sound judgment and acts with speed

  1. Balances data, logic and intuition in decision-making
  2. Deals effectively with concrete, tangible issues as well as abstract, conceptual matters
  3. Makes timely decisions
  4. Generates pragmatic, sensible, and simple solutions to complex problems
  5. Moves quickly to eliminate roadblocks

4. Sustain Intensity and Optimism

Constantly raises the bar

  1. Sets stretch performance standards for self and others
  2. Creates the optimal tension for peak performance
  3. Demonstrates low tolerance for mediocrity
  4. Fosters high levels of accountability through fair, but hard-hitting performance management processes

Displays personal courage

  1. Takes a stand on controversial and unpopular issues
  2. Makes tough business and people decisions

Continuously learns and adapts

  1. Is insightful about personal mistakes and failures: learns from them and moves on
  2. Is a voracious learner

5. Live Our Values

  1. Lives our company’s values
  2. Puts the interest of the bank ahead of his or her own agenda

Written by frrl

June 21, 2010 at 10:22 pm

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