Secrets of Success

I wrote these notes for these posts during my time on promotion boards, but held off posting them until the work was done.  

After many years of trying to figure out the tricks of getting promoted, I finally got it.  It is an epiphany. After now reading  the files of 100s of my very competent colleagues, I found that the secret of success is to be good at what you do. Of course, the write up is important. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, it doesn’t make a sound for any practical purpose. But you have to have something to write about.  A week of energetic writing and spinning won’t make up for a year of lethargy on the job. You just cannot sell Edsels.  On the other hand, people stand in line to get the good products they want.

I like the fact that people write their own first pages on their assessments. It gives a better look at what they can do and what they think is important.  Some people “get it” more than others. In their own write-ups they emphasize the right things first and they make logical and meaningful connections among the things they accomplished.  

There is focus.  In the good EERs, I notice a “purposes principle” at work. They explain the “so what?” and list the results and outcomes of what they have accomplished.  I also get the impression that they frequently ask the purpose question.  When someone gives you a task, it is not impertinent to ask, “what do you plan to use it for?” This will often make the person focus more, give you a better idea of what is necessary and maybe make it more of a partnership.  The person getting the task might know, for example, that there is a better way to achieve the goal.   Of course, you have to ask the question in the right way, but a good leader should be glad to have subordinates who try to improve on what they are given.

Nobody is perfect and I like it when I can find areas of actual conflict or mistakes that provided learning opportunities. This is perhaps the hardest part to get right. Nobody likes to be criticized and it is always a risk to have any criticism prominently mentioned. However, it may be a acceptable risk that sets you apart. Nobody has a good year every year. It is unlikely that someone goes from one success to another w/o any setbacks.  I was reminded of the juvenile lovers who ask their partners whether they love them more today than yesterday. Despite what we hear in song and story, the inevitable true answer eventually must be “no”. It doesn’t mean that careers, or love, do not or cannot grow over a long period, but it will never be a straight and clear path in either case.  

That said, it makes no sense to dwell on failure. One of the things I dislike most is when people seem to revel in the hard times they have suffered. Difficult conditions are a mitigating factor, but the fact is that there are two sorts of criteria. You either did something or you didn’t.  Almost fought the great chicken of Bristol just doesn’t compare to actual achievement.  Ideally, you should mention the problem immediately followed by how you moved on from it.  And remember that most FS careers have had some hardships. I served a year in the Western Desert of Iraq, with dust in the air and bad guys behind the rocks; many of our colleagues have had worse. The bad plumbing or poor phone service at someone’s post just doesn’t sound very impressive.

Overall, some files just seem to sing beautifully, others are a little off key and a few are bad. Sometimes one person manages to be/do all three.  That is why I like to see the person in more than one type of job or place.  Some people can do well one time and in one place. That is admirable but doesn’t mean they should be promoted to more responsibility. It is not the one home run that counts but the day-to-day success that adds up over a long period.