Are you a tree or a flagpole?

MANILA, Philippines – We never know the great “learning moments” in our life when they are happening. It is only after the fact that we realize the moment.

It was in 1995 I was living in Morocco and I organized a lunch with my young marketing team and our visiting CEO then, Mr. Durk Jager. One of the young team asked a very provocative question:

“Why is it that one person almost makes it to the top of a company — for example they make it to senior vice president — and another person goes all the way to CEO? What is it that differentiates these two people?”

Durk Jager is a very smart and insightful man, who had indeed made it to the pinnacle of being P&G’s global CEO. And I will never forget his answer:

“That’s the best question I have ever been asked in 30 years of business. And I can tell you this. It has nothing to do with strategic thinking or brains. It has nothing to do with leadership. It has no connection to people management skills. And certainly nothing to do with background, education, or types of experiences.

“The difference is in only one area. The guy who stops at a level one or two notches below CEO is talented. But he/she failed to realize this is a game of continual improvement. They one day decided they were a star. They had nothing left to learn. They had ‘proven’ themselves. So they stopped being open to learn. They stopped taking on new challenges that would push them. They didn’t put themselves in the line of fire anymore. In a sense, they stopped growing.
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“However, the one who makes CEO never stopped learning. They never felt they had ‘made it.’ They always knew they had to keep proving themselves over and over again. They took on the new challenges, the new roles, picked up and moved to the new country or assignment. And that’s why they eventually surpass their peers and make it to CEO.”

I will never forget that day. I learned a great deal. And to put it in simple terms, I call it the story of the flagpole and the tree. Which one are you?

They exist in every company. Flagpoles are high up. But they are fixed. And they aren’t going any higher. Flagpoles believe their own press. They are proven. They are good. They have nothing left to learn. You know how to spot a flagpole? It’s easy. Tell them something, and they will almost snap at you when they say, “I know that.” In fact, a flagpole’s favorite three-word sentence is just that: “I know that.” Flagpoles can be offended if offered certain roles — they think they are “too good” or “above” a certain type of role.

Flagpoles are at any level of a company. There is no magic to when an individual decides suddenly they are too good to learn. I have seen it happen to people in their 30s. There is no rule that says it only occurs one level below CEO!

Trees, on the other hand, are also high but have room to grow. They take in the water and nutrients — the learnings and growth opportunities of any role — and grow. They know that “nobody is smarter than everybody.” And over time, they surpass the height of the flagpole. Even if they start lower, trees can get bigger — flagpoles cannot.

That’s the name of the game for a steady and fulfilling career. Be a tree. Learn and grow every day. Be open to accepting the feedback and growth possibilities. Take the tough new assignment. Get out of your comfort zone! Move countries. Change categories. Push yourself. Nothing is sadder than to see a 30-something flagpole who blames the world for the lack of career progress. But they are out there — all over the place, in fact. Armed with the fancy degrees and pedigree but forgetting that a piece of paper or a family name can only get you so far.

And if you catch yourself saying, “I know that” a little too frequently, maybe take a step back and ask yourself, “Am I a tree or a flagpole?”

Trees rule.