"People who set artificial career goals make a huge mistake," according to Jim Parker, CEO of Southwest Airlines. Parker, who started his career as a lawyer, recalls a meeting he had with South-west Chairman Herb Kelleher many years ago. Parker was a young assistant attorney general for the state of Texas. Kelleher asked him what his career goals were. Parker replied, awkwardly, "Honestly, I never really have set any career goals." Kelleher looked back at him and smiled. "Then we are going to get along just fine," he said.
Both Parker and Kelleher believe that rigid professional planning is a major obstacle to long-term professional success. Indeed, the major mistake that causes otherwise talented people to fail, according to Parker, is "the desire to achieve some specific title or position at some specific time in your career."
The viewpoint expressed by Senator Dole and Mr. Parker is a recurring theme among the invincible executives we shall get to know in this book. Let's start with recording artists. Grammy winner Sheryl Crow told me that in 1986, she just picked up and left her teaching job in St. Louis and headed for Los Angeles with four thousand dollars in her pocket. Within a few years, she was the most decorated rock star in the world. "I didn't have any plan for how I would get a record deal," she said. "I just figured the first thing I would do was ... try to see what I could do as far as getting my music heard.... My plan wasn't even remotely reality-based," Crow added. Rock drummer Gina Shock told me virtually the same story. In 1979, she loaded up her drums in her car and drove to Los Angeles. She had no idea that she and her band, the Go-Go's, would hit number one less than three years later, and she had no specific plan on how to get there.
How different can rock stars and military leaders be? Well, in terms of career planning, they are not that different at all. Admiral Joseph Prueher said that he never thought that he would become the commander of the Pacific Fleet when he started his career as a young officer. His only goal was to serve his country the best way that he could. "Planning is an eight-lane highway," according to Admiral Prueher. "You really have to keep a lot of options open," he adds. "Another way to look at it is to consider yourself to be at the center of a circle, with the option of going in any direction. If your plan is 360 degrees, you don't have a plan. If it is 180 degrees, it is probably not a functional plan. If you can get it down to a quadrant—90 degrees—then you are doing pretty well." No one should be more focused than that.
Pat Finneran, the former marine who is in charge of some of the nation's largest military programs for Boeing, also could "never have dreamed" he would be responsible for thousands of people and billions of dollars when he joined the marines as a lieutenant in 1966. "I did not have specific plans.... I felt a need to support my country in the Vietnam conflict ... so going into the Marine Corps just made sense to me at that time." His marine career gave him the qualifications to land a mid-level job at Boeing, and before he knew it, he had been promoted four times and had several thousand people reporting to him.
Perhaps the best examples of leading professionals who started with little in the way of plans are women lawyers over the age of fifty. When they went to law school from 1950 into the early 1970s, opportunities for women lawyers were very limited—big law firms would not hire them, and judges were usually white males. For that reason, they really could not have much in the way of specific plans. For example, former Attorney General Janet Reno told me that when she graduated from law school, her only ambition was to find a job—any job—in the legal profession. It never crossed her mind that she would become the chief law enforcement officer of even the local county when she was struggling to get a legal job in the 1960s. "Women were just not given opportunities in law back then," and her only ambition was to make a statement that women could succeed in a male-dominated field.
Similarly, Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who visited my law firm a few years back, told a story about how, after graduating from Stanford Law School, she tried to get a job as an associate attorney at a leading law firm. The law firm managers told her that they did not hire women, but they offered her a secretarial job. Decades later, after President Reagan had appointed Justice O'Connor to the Supreme Court, the same firm that had offered her a secretarial job when she was starting out invited her to speak to its lawyers. Justice O'Connor accepted the invitation and then took some pleasure in telling the members of the firm about the job that they had offered her so many years ago.
All of these top professionals had two things in common: the drive to succeed in their chosen fields and no specific plans on how to do so.