Many Ways to Win

July 27, 2015

It would be hypocritical of me to advise patience in career advancement. Recently, however, I’ve developed a little bit of perspective by watching the Tour de France. It occurred to me that the race has multiple winners each year. Following the many yellow jersey victories of Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, casual American fan’s might associate victory with the overall time placement. There are actually four colored jerseys awarded for the highest achievement in different disciplines: white for best young rider, polka-dot for “king of the mountains,” green for points leader, and yellow for overall time. It’s an honor to win any, and very different cyclists are in contention for each.

The best young rider is naturally reserved for riders under age 26. It is awarded based on overall time. The combination of age and endurance winnows the field in contention. Selection of a young rider by a team to participate in the Tour by itself demonstrates prodigy in cycling, winning the white jersey bestows international recognition. However, the wearer of the white jersey is not typically in contention for the other three awards. Overcoming the gap in experience and team support typically afforded overall leaders is a hill too far to climb.

A desire to be recognized for extraordinary potential can be manifest in almost any field. ASCE and the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) participate in identifying young talent by annually publishing lists of the brightest New Faces in Civil Engineering and in Engineering, respectively. Engineering News-Record also announces the top 40 under 40 regionally in the design and construction industry. I’ve had the honor of being named a New Face of Civil Engineering and among the Midwest’s top 40 under 40.

In spite of these accolades, I can recall, as a young adult, feeling inadequate when compared against other profiles in prodigy. Was I already falling behind my peers? Perhaps as a result, I pushed myself to achieve accolades later, but it was at the cost of some emotional well-being, particularly when corporate promotion did not follow in line with the awards. I may have worn the white jersey for a day, but the road ahead looked steeper and perhaps I should have been more measured in my pace and preparation.

The polka-dot jersey is perhaps the least flattering of the Tour color guard, but fittingly it is worn by the rider with the ugliest specialty – leading the grueling climbs through the Pyrenees and the Alps mountain ranges. On long flat stages where the sprinters leap frog ahead to rack up race win, the mountain climbers are content to reserve their strength at the back of the peloton (the large pack of riders riding together for shared support and not typically in contention for the daily awards). But when the road is steepest, these riders are at their best. Fights to the finish are most exciting on mountain climbs because you can see the test of will against oneself physically and mentally. Invariably a challenger will shoot ahead in the hope of building an insurmountable lead, and then the drama unfolds as the other contenders attempt to reel him in.

In this metaphor, I present the “king of the mountains” award to my colleagues who have, throughout their careers, focused on consistently providing superior technical service to the company and their clients. They are the engineer’s engineers, the people you go to for help with tough technical questions, because they always offer solutions. Business development dinners are not their cup of tea, but they know just the right thing to say at a design team meeting – and don’t say much else.

In the structural consulting field a certain level of technical proficiency is a necessity. Sometimes the king of the mountains will win the overall timed race. Likewise, the most technical structural engineer will sometimes rise to the highest levels of professional accomplishment – because, well, the most difficult problems require virtuosity. But the definition of winning is in the eye of the beholder, because it can be measured in a couple of ways.

The green jersey goes to the winningest rider on the Tour. Points are awarded for crossing intermediate markers and the daily finish line by order. Whereas little may be at stake in overall race for the yellow jersey on typical days, the race offers daily competition for the sprinters. These strongest of riders do little more than attempt to stay in the race on mountain days, but when the road is flat the competition is intense. The best sprinters will try to position themselves for a final kick to take the line first, sometime after over two hundred kilometers of peddling in one day. The points leaders are household names for their countrymen and cycle racing fans. Their accomplishment is on par with the yellow jersey.

In industry there are entrepreneurs and business leaders that know to stay in contention and then strike when the opportunity presents itself. A change in market conditions might signal a manager to offer a new service. The departure of a division leader could be the opportunity that a deputy needs to step up. A client may indicate displeasure with another service provider, thus opening the door to a competitor. People can advance their career by responding powerfully to opportunity. It’s a delicate balance of course, because if you kick too soon, you may not have the stamina to close.

The wearer of the green jersey can advance quickly and reaps immediate affirmation, but there are many points available during the three week tour, and plenty of opportunities for the competition to catch up. They basically have to defend their position every day, or at least be strategic about rest. I don’t see myself in this race. Colleagues on this track have had to travel extensively and sometimes relocate to chase the opportunity. This competition is taxing, and it can overextend the capabilities of a support team.

Americans hold the yellow jersey in highest regard; at least following past victories (even though cheating has vacated Armstrong’s accomplishments). I think it also speaks to the American psyche, demanding of hard work, being well rounded, and bottom line success. The overall winner must be able to perform throughout the duration: in the mountains, in time trials, and on the scenic roads.

The importance of teamwork is largely overlooked by casual cycling fans. In fact, the contenders for the Yellow jersey have been preselected by their teams and are offered superior support in their endeavor throughout the tour. Teammates take turns setting the pace, retrieving nutrients and water, and flying as wingman to protect their contender from crashes. Only the best are given the opportunity for the yellow jersey, without the team they would stand no chance.

Achieving the yellow jersey isn’t so much the culmination of a slow and steady race, but rather making the daily commitment to do what must be done. In the corporate parallel, this may mean taking on tasks above and below pay grade as it benefits the team goal. One must be aware of the health of the entire team, because without that support system the contender cannot move up. Opportunism is still part of the game, but perhaps the decision to strike must be measured by the circumstances. A move to a new city or market sector may offer immediate personal advancement, but it would be akin to switching teams and setting back the overall goals as the team-building process resets. The long race requires a long plan that may see advancement in fits and starts but has the strength of support to endure to the finish line.

I’d like to think that I have made career decisions that will ultimately help me claim the yellow jersey. At times, I’ve been disappointed with short term outcomes, but I’ve tried to use that as motivation. The most rewarding aspect of my career has been the development of relationships with my team. Efforts to mentor and constantly seek improvements in team performance and efficiency are paying off. Together I think we have what it takes to achieve the pinnacle of an engineering career.

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