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3 Ways to Create Speed on Your Career Path

Recently, a reporter described my career as an “unconventional ascent.” Yes, somebody with a degree in journalism, who started out as a copywriter and never got an MBA, is an unusual candidate for CEO of one of the world’s largest corporations. What makes it more unusual, though, is how quickly it happened: I was 46 when I became CEO of Yum!

The truth is that I did what most people do on the path to higher level leadership. I worked hard, I took jobs that would give me opportunities to grow, and I made the most of opportunities and advantages. How did I do it so fastBy combining incremental growth and change, with rare boosts of quantum change.

A lot of people hold a misconception that to get what you want fast, you need a quantum change to propel you forward. Think of quantum change moments like the day you showed up at college or became a parent. Your knowledge and behaviors have to change dramatically if you’re going to succeed—like when I became COO of PepsiCo’s beverage division with very little operations experience and was given 60 days to prove I was up to the job. Quantum change was the only option. You should pursue these opportunities because they act like a turbo boost.

But if you spend your time waiting for these rare opportunities for quantum change, you’ll miss a million opportunities for incremental change that can get you farther faster. The other great thing about incremental change is that when an opportunity for quantum change shows up, you’ll be well-prepared to act on it. It's the same with companies. They stop growing when they bet all their progress on the next big idea. Dan Cathy, chairman of Chick-fil-A, has said that innovation is about iteration and growth is about “getting better and better at making incremental improvements every day.”

Speed toward your goals comes from frequent incremental change, so that you’re ready for the rare opportunities for quantum change.

Most of us aren’t as deliberate about incremental change as we could be. We assume it’s happening as a byproduct of our daily life and work. Instead, I developed a deliberate habit of growth early on in life and in my career, and it sped up my journey. You can do the same using these three approaches:

Open your mind to any opportunity for growth.

In Take Charge of You, we call this growth orientation the coaching mindset. Without it, you miss opportunities so you make slower progress.

The biggest hurdle to frequent change is the human brain. It likes certainty. It likes to know. It likes to predict. This tendency narrows your thinking, especially when you’re under stress, which is usually when opportunities for incremental change show up.

A great technique that Jason Goldsmith, my co-author and an elite performance coach, teaches is to put yourself in a neutral state. A neutral state helps you overcome feeling afraid, anxious, and overly excited and open your mind. The moments that slowed me down in my career were moments when my excitement and certainty closed me off to important ideas (like pushing forward with Crystal Pepsi, even though other people had doubts). When I worked to tone it down, I was able to open myself to other perspectives and take insightful action that led to faster progress.

Neutrality is characterized by lower brain frequencies, making it much easier to focus on the present and notice more of what’s happening around you. For instance, you’ll “hear” more of the feedback you get in a performance review. You’ll pick up on important ideas in a difficult discussion about a project that’s off track.

Be humble enough to learn from those who know more than you.

In How to Change, Katy Milkman explains that we often don’t think to seek out other people’s insights. One of the brain’s biases is assuming that other people know what we know and think how we think, and so they can’t help us. This holds us back from discovering strategies that would help us grow faster.

My fast path to executive-level leadership was mostly due to believing the opposite.

It’s amazing what you can learn when you ask people, especially people who probably know more than you, to share their perspective or their knowledge. In my experience, they almost never say no. The insights shared with me through the years were game changing. Early on, I grew my marketing skills fast by learning everything I could from some of the greats in the industry, like Tom James, a marketing genius. When I became head of marketing at Pizza Hut, I learned from the incredible team we built, including people like Bill McDonald, Terry Davenport, and Ken Caldwell. As President of KFC, I learned so much about how to lead a whole company by asking our frontline chefs, cashiers, and managers, “What would you do if you were me?”

Over and over, wherever I was in my career, I grew incrementally, but fast, by absorbing as much expertise as I could from my environment and the people in it.

Build belief in your ability to grow.

Carol Dweck has explained that people with a growth mindset, who believe they can develop their abilities and talents, make more of an effort to learn because they believe the effort will pay off. This helps them view setbacks and challenges as learning opportunities.

When we’re struggling to grow, we lose momentum and we often stop doing the things that have gotten us as far as we’ve come. We look at failures as absolutes rather than opportunities. We get stuck and we stop making important incremental changes.

You can avoid this trap by reminding yourself what you’ve accomplished. Catalog your successful moments and remind yourself of them when your confidence has taken a hit. Or turn to people in your life for help. My parents have always been my biggest cheerleaders, and often remind me what I’m capable of when I put in the work.

Real, positive, lasting and faster change happens step by step, goal by goal, incrementally over time. Occasionally, quantum change gives us a turbo boost, but only if you’re prepared for it. So, where in your life are you waiting for a quantum change opportunity when you should be working for incremental change? And which of the three approaches do you think would help?

April 5, 2022