Thinking Aloud
Monday, October 23, 2006 VOLUME 3 ISSUE 131  
Top Mistakes of Would-Be Superstars
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Top Mistakes of Would-Be Superstars
by Julie Kampf

You know you’re good at your job, but is your career on the “fast-track” or is it simply on track?  As an executive recruiter, I’m always on the lookout for career superstars. But for every standout I find, I see four others who are smart, talented, hardworking, experienced potential-but-not-quite-there-today superstars. Here are the top mistakes of these would-be superstars and how you can avoid them to let your own star-power shine.


Mistake #1: Staying quiet about your successes. 

The single biggest career mistake you can make is not talking about your successes, and women are the major offenders. We’re conditioned to be humble and, as a result, we often have to work twice as hard to achieve the recognition we deserve. If you have talent, you need to tell people about it in a way that bridges humility with pride. That means taking credit when you spearhead a successful project and giving credit to others on your team. It means acknowledging your own hard work when a client thanks you for a job well done. It means taking part in a networking organization to establish yourself as a mover and shaker. And it means assertively sharing your achievements during job interviews. While that may sound self-evident, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent a gifted senior executive on a job interview only to discover that she neglected even to mention her most impressive achievements. 


Mistake #2: Stepping on toes.

There’s an unfortunate myth that nice girls finish last. The good news is that the employers who hire me to fill senior-level positions don’t buy into that myth. Companies today want executives who build alliances, strengthen teams and interact well at all levels…so recruiters today work hard to screen out those who get ahead at the expense of others.  If you’re not sure whether you’re making this mistake, do a 360-degree analysis by asking yourself how you interact with people below you, above you and also at your level on the organizational chart. A client once gave me a plaque that says, “Because Nice Matters.”  Believe that every company can have more than one superstar, because if you want to get ahead, being nice is an asset. 


Mistake #3: Taking on responsibility before you’re ready. 

Forget what you’ve read about how making it to the top means never shying away from a challenge. Sure, superstars seek responsibility – but only at a level they can handle or will be given the support needed to acquire new skill sets to meet challenges. My advice: evaluate each opportunity carefully. Is it the right next step for your skills, or is it simply an open position that someone wants filled? If you have doubts, share them. Ask for support. Focus the dialogue on your commitment to making sure you can do justice to the task at hand. Today’s workplace is unforgiving, and if you take on a challenge and fail, you may find it hard to get a second chance. 


Mistake #4: Lack of planning.

I’ll go out on a limb: if you don’t write down career goals, you’ll never be a superstar. Superstars often have to redirect their goals, but they always have them…and writing them down shows that you’re serious about what you want to achieve. As a recruiter, I can distinguish people who are planning their careers from people who have just let their careers happen. Superstars are planners.


Mistake #5: Lack of flexibility. At the same time, you need to adapt your plans to a workplace that’s changing faster than ever. Recognize that your job description may change or your employer may be acquired and give yourself an edge by staying as flexible and agile as possible.  Sometimes that’s as simple as having a conversation with someone outside your organization about a possible new opportunity.  And sometimes taking the best next step for your career may mean relocating or considering a job that requires significant travel. 


Mistake #6: Job hopping. As the workplace becomes increasingly volatile, executives are changing positions faster than ever before. More and more, I’m seeing job candidates who spend as little as six to eight months each in a series of jobs – never long enough to show multi-year success. Superstars want to make a difference and tend to stay in jobs long enough to build a track record.


Mistake #7: Never changing employers. On the other hand, spending too many years with one employer ultimately hurts your opportunities elsewhere and may make it tough to keep your skills fresh.  When you stay in one place, your compensation naturally increases at a slower pace than if you change employers few times over a 20-year period. And, unfortunately, as your compensation lags, potential employers value you less. If I send a client two job candidates with equal skills but unequal compensation, the client inevitably will place a higher value on the candidate who earns more. Consider occasionally – and very strategically – changing employers to keep your skills and your compensation robust.


Mistake #8: Turning your career over to recruiters. Be wary of executive recruiters who may steer you toward a position that’s just not right for you. Superstars know their competencies and interests and avoid recruiters who try to steer them in a different direction with offers of more money and a better title.     


Mistake #9: Ignoring recruiters. At the same time, 90 percent of the executives my firm places were not planning a career move when we first contacted them. When a recruiter calls, I strongly recommend you have even a brief conversation to evaluate the opportunity. You might be interested or be able to suggest an appropriate candidate. Most important of all, you’ll build a relationship with a recruiter who might come in handy later on. 


Mistake #10: Valuing style over substance. I’m all in favor of great-looking resumes and dazzling interview skills. But with all the attention paid to presentation today, many would-be superstars forget that substance comes first. What matters most are your achievements. 


Start your superstar career by doing terrific work – the kind that reduces turnover, boosts the bottom line, builds leaders, solves problems and helps your company flourish. You’ll be well on your way to becoming the kind of superstar that employers prize most in today’s war for talent.


Julie B. Kampf is Founder and President of JBK Associates, Inc., an Englewood, NJ-based executive search firm specializing in retained searches with a focus on senior-level management positions. With a second office in Princeton, NJ and a satellite office in Atlanta, the firm is also certified as a woman-owned business by the prestigious Women’s Business Enterprise National Council and was named 2005 Best New Company by the American Business Awards. For more information, visit 


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