Avoid Growing Pains in Your Career

"When you look at growth as a strategy, it becomes somewhat seductive, addictive. But growth should not be—and is not—a strategy; it's a tactic."—Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.


When is growth a bad thing?

When it's happening too fast, and causing you (or your company) to lose sight of core competencies, principles and values.

The good news: it's possible to correct all of that—but not without some tough decision-making along the way.

Those are just a few of the takeaways from a lengthy interview McKinsey's Allen Webb conducted with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz , published recently in the McKinsey Quarterly.

Given the company's ubiquity, it's easy to forget just how rapid Starbucks' rise has been—and just as easy, once you're reminded, to understand how pursuing growth at any cost came to define the firm for much of the past decade.

As Schultz points out in the interview, "You have to understand that in 1987, Starbucks had 11 stores and 100 employees, and we had this dream to create a national brand around coffee and a unique experience in our stores that, hopefully, we would be able to extend from the West Coast to around the country."

Little wonder that the company's core mission became clouded—that a firm that dreamed of creating a national brand around coffee should arrive at a point where store managers were selling stuffed toys in a bid to increase revenues.

To be clear: Schultz isn't saying he doesn't want growth; he just wants the right kind of growth. Indeed, he indicates in the interview that he doesn't think it's possible to succeed as a company without pursuing growth: "You can't attract and retain great people for a company that isn't going to grow."

Just as focusing too much on growth can be a bad thing for a firm, it can also wreak havoc at an individual career level. An individual who spends all of their time focusing on achieving the next milestone in their career runs the risk of spreading themselves too thin, and not doing their existing job properly.

The main difference in Starbucks' strategy now—at least as Schultz tells it—is that growth seems to be something that will occur naturally if the wider strategy initiatives are successful. (For a full description, see the piece in the Quarterly, but here's the short version: Schultz wants the company to be the first to successfully tie a consumer packaged goods business to a retail one—and to do it globally.)

That's a lesson that can be applied at the individual level too. The old maxim that "the reward for good work is more work" is usually given a negative or rueful spin. But in terms of career development, it's an accurate—and positive—way of looking at the world. Taking the time to truly master the core responsibilities of your current role is the key to gaining the sort of recognition that will allow opportunities for advancement to come to you.

That stands in comparison to an all-too-common career trap people fall into: over-reaching in an attempt to impress, and having your reputation suffer when it turns out you have too much on your plate to be able to deliver quality results.

For that reason, career-minded people at any level should bear Schultz's quote in mind: while the concept of growth is indeed seductive, taking the time to assess whether it makes sense for the path you're on is critical for lasting success.

Phil Stott is a Producer at Vault.com, where he covers anything related to jobs, career advice and the economy for Vault's Careers Blog. Originally from Scotland, he has lived and worked in Eastern Europe, Asia and the U.S., in fields including consumer banking, education, journalism and … bowling. He currently resides in New York.