Inflection points are those moments in time that lead to the forming of our reputation. It is true that our reputation precedes us. It is equally true that it follows us as well. This is why I sometimes refer to it as our “vapor trail.” This vapor trail can follow us a long way and for a very long time throughout the course of our careers. As the metaphor suggests, it is sometimes made up of less-than-tangible bits of reputational data that float through the hallways of our organizations, often unaffected by current realities or even hard evidence. A chance comment like, “Great at execution, but not strategic” can attach itself to our vapor trails faster than the Road Runner avoiding the Acme anvil. So how do we manage this all-important aspect of our career trajectory?
None of us is or can be at 100 percent at all times. We have great moments, average moments, and moments we would like to forget the instant after they happen. It is the definition of being human. We need to be at our best at the most important moments. How do we know when they are coming? We don’t always. So how do we prepare for what we can’t anticipate? Simply put, we begin to make a commitment to thinking about what is coming and what might be coming.
Executives in all of the companies in which I work are incredibly busy. They spend enormous amounts of time in the realm of the doing with little time left to spend in the realm of the thinking. This is not to blame executives. The system is rigged now in a way that ensures this will happen. I often suggest executives schedule some thinking time into their day. First thing in the morning can be a good time, particularly if you tend to get in early—fewer distractions. Some executives find it helpful to take Sunday night and survey the week’s landscape of meetings and tasks. This can be a good time to anticipate what’s coming and prepare for it.
Think of this: Most organizational citizens spend an inordinate amount of time in meetings. The higher one ascends, the more meetings one can anticipate attending. So why is it that so many of us find ourselves in meetings for which we are ill-prepared? Why is it that some of us find ourselves in meetings in which we have very little idea about what is to be discussed? This leads many executives to be in meetings they need not even attend. It is largely because we find ourselves behind rather than ahead. Anticipating suggests and allows us to be ahead. We need to slow down to go faster. This can happen only if we take time to think.
There are two times when executives typically experience negative inflection points: when they are under great stress and when they are too relaxed. Offhand comments in the hallway can be just as damaging as a misguided comment during an important meeting. We may think we are having a lighthearted bit of snappy patter with our boss’s boss as we pass in the hallway—they say, “Are you still hanging around here like a bad smell after all this time?” and we reply, “Yep, just waiting for the stock to shoot up again so I can retire.” Never mind that you are only 33 years old. The boss’s boss now goes to your boss to gauge your level of engagement. This would be an example of a negative inflection point: a bit of dubious vapor added to your trail based on a throwaway comment.
When we know an important meeting is coming, we can prepare our “bag of tricks.” The bag contains any thoughts, comments, and questions we might want to introduce at an opportune time. If we don’t get to use everything in our bag at a given meeting, we simply save the unused items for another meeting or we take it one-on-one to the appropriate person.
Certainly, there are many things that go into making up our reputation. I don’t mean to imply that everything is totally random. Our performance, our network, and our behavior over the course of our careers should and usually do form the core of how we are seen by others. However, I have observed chance encounters that have had a deleterious impact on the careers of some very good executives. Being prepared for the seen and unseen by anticipating is an executive’s best hedge against painful inflection points that can lead to damaging our vapor trails.
Note: This post was originally published on LinkedIn here.