Wake-up Call: Patience key to long-term success

Wake-up Call: Patience key to long-term success

Taking your time to reach the top position has its benefits, survey shows


Karen Firestone

People need to realise that careers are a marathon and not a sprint

People need to realise that careers are a marathon and not a sprint



Most career advice today encourages us to move forward passionately, intentionally, boldly – and above all, quickly. Career coaches don’t make a lot of money from encouraging people to “get ahead slowly”. However, in terms of fulfilling our long-term goals for career success, patience can be an asset.

I wanted to get a sense of how common it was for senior executives to experience a career delay, so I surveyed a group of 45 male and female executives. The group was divided almost equally between women and men, and most were chief executives or managing directors of their organisations. The women’s average age was 50; for men, the average age was 42.

Virtually all of the women said they had experienced a period of time when their career slowed down, shifted direction or got put on hold, with the average duration being four years.

They overwhelmingly mentioned family responsibilities as the cause of the slowdown, and several said they slowed down intentionally. But despite the slowdown, almost all of these women attained a high-level job in their enterprise between their mid-40s and early 50s.

Patience is ultimately rewarded. For example, a longitudinal study of mothers in the workforce has found that although women with children advance more slowly than women without children, the gap declines over time for those women who remain in the workforce, disappearing by age 50. This accords with what I found: while it took the parents longer to get to where they wanted to be, they did get there eventually.

And in fact, many people in my informal survey said that they liked having a flatter career trajectory and that they learned important lessons from it. One major reason: burnout prevention.

This was certainly my own experience – in my 30s, I had four young children and worked full-time in an office. At least a decade passed before my professional life resumed the steady advance that I observed among most of my male colleagues and female peers who had no children. I believe my willingness to enjoy my family and my professional life concurrently was instrumental in my long-term success. It’s possible that I would have burned out if I had worked any more intensely than I did.

Others reported that taking their time allowed them to develop the skills they needed to be more effective leaders in the long run.

For example, Deana, an attorney on the partnership track at a New York law firm, made a strategic decision to take a position as executive director of a local nonprofit when her children were very young.

After gaining top management experience in that lower-pressure environment, she moved back to a law firm, where she was soon promoted to partner and ultimately joined the top management team. She believes that her stint at the nonprofit was highly valuable to her career. When she re-entered the corporate legal world, she had evolved into a polished and confident leader with executive experience.

As young women and men today struggle with their choices during their 20s and 30s, they should remember that careers are, as one survey responder emphasised, a marathon and not a sprint. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015

Karen Firestone is the president and chief executive of Aureus Asset Management.


Previously published in The Irish Times.


Check out Ireland's leading jobs here

Back to listing