This summer, a milestone crept up on me—I realized it’s been twenty-five years since I began my career as a professor. So naturally, I’ve spent some time reflecting on how my choice of profession has worked out. I spend most of my classroom time with executives who are there because they are unhappy with where they are – or they at least understand they won’t be satisfied for long. Their hope is that whatever we do together in class will help them find something they’ll find more fulfilling. How thankful I am that I’ve never had to wrestle with that.
And how grateful I should be to an early mentor whose advice, I would say, led to my good fortune. I began my career at Louisiana State University in August of 1989. The department chair had worked hard to hire a cohort of five young faculty members that could help shore up a department that had suffered from attrition. As newly minted Ph.D.s, what we lacked in wisdom we compounded with inexperience. The chairman had his hands full.
At some point during that first fall, I was walking across campus with him for lunch and I recall sharing a frustration. I don’t recall the precise source of it, but I know it led me to want to call someone out for what I felt was a grievous offense of one sort or another. Though I can’t remember the foul, I do remember his advice. He told me, “You need to remember that this is a small field and you are going to have a long career.” There hasn’t been a month across the twenty-five years since in which that simple piece of advice hasn’t helped me frame the way I should respond to a colleague, a student, or an administrator.
When my mentor made his observation, he was speaking quite particularly about the profession he and I shared. Ours was a small field – there are only so many business schools and only so many professors – and, because it is a good gig, very few people are in any rush to leave. Make an enemy, and you will keep encountering that enemy for a long time. Soil your reputation, and you will find it next to impossible to make a fresh start.
But it occurs to me that what was true of our world a quarter century ago is true much more generally today. Technology has now made his advice relevant to virtually every person beginning a career. Now, no matter what your profession is and no matter where you practice it, you work in what is essentially a small field.
Certainly, those of us participating in social media are proactively making our reputation knowable to a much wider audience than ever before – with implications we might not anticipate. But even if we personally aren’t contributing, others are on our behalf. Faculty, as an example, are subject to ratemyprofessor.com (where rating criteria include student evaluations even of a professor’s “hotness”). All sorts of other professions deal with similarly candid and arbitrary reviews on sites like yelp.com.
We all know that this explosion of information is a genie that is not going back in its bottle. So, for those of you just embarking on your careers, look around you: the people around you will be your companions on a long journey. Manage your interactions with them accordingly.
And for those of you who are already well down the road and perhaps, along the way, have burned bridges, raised hackles, made enemies – well, do what you can to get those relationships on a better, more professional footing. Odds are that the person you’ve alienated will still be part of your field many years from now. And you’re in for a long career.
About the Authors
Nathan Bennett, Ph.D., is Professor of Management in the J. Mack Robinson College of Business. He specializes in leadership and strategy execution, managing innovation and change processes, top management team dynamics, and contextual influences on individual behavior in organizations. Nate has published in numerous widely-read resources for managers including the Harvard Business Review and Wall Street Journal. He is co-author of the 2006 Stanford University Press title “Riding Shotgun: The Role of the COO” and the 2010 book “Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals.” Professor Bennett received both his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Master’s degree in Applied Research from Tulane University, and a Ph.D. in Management from Georgia Tech.