What do the people with the most fulfilling career trajectories have in common?
The most obvious trend: top performers act like owners. Performance leads to leverage. Leverage creates career opportunity. It’s common advice. In order to make the biggest impact on your company, treat it like it’s your own.
See a problem? Solve it. Have an idea? Pitch it, champion it, and then bring it to life. Want to spend money? Spend it like it’s yours. Frustrated? Take ownership for solving the root cause of the problem.
Acting like an owner is important. But is that the key differentiator?
Product-market fit is a helpful parallel concept
I often find it useful to parlay learnings from separate but related problems in situations like this. Some people would describe this as applying a “mental model.”
Taking a step back, I ask, “What is the single best differentiator between companies with potential and companies that grow to sustain themselves?”
It’s not whether the people inside of the company work hard enough or take ownership for outcomes. There are countless companies whose founders and teams have worked like owners only to be forced to shut the company down.
No, it’s not hard work. It’s whether they’re able to find product-market fit. The concept of product-market fit conveys the idea that a product is only useful in the context of a specific group of people.
Every person on the team can act like an owner, but if there is no product-market fit there won’t be sufficient progress to keep going.
When there is product-market fit, hard work creates a flywheel of success. Once the wheel starts turning, the momentum picks up and momentum becomes a force of progress all on its own.
Talent-company fit gives you more career capital than acting like an owner. Capital is leverage.
The single most important differentiating factor between high potential people who end up frustrated and those who turn potential into performance is talent-company fit.
Two stories to illustrate why talent-company fit matters
Stories help me understand how to apply lessons to my own career. The two stories illustrate why talent-company fit matters beyond all else.
Story 1: The most painful professional departure of my career
The startup I joined after my first business failed to get to product-market fit was the go-to education platform for creators to learn how to build a business.
The founder was a long-time mentor of mine and the mission aligned with many of my beliefs. The problem was hard and the work was interesting. I cared deeply and treated my job like I was an owner of the company.
Although I started in a role leading customer success, I worked as hard as I could and was promoted to lead growth and marketing.
I obsessed over how to help the company grow. I created a cohesive marketing strategy and implementation plan. I tracked our metrics like I had everything riding on our success. I put in hour after hour executing on the plan. And it worked! Our customer base and revenue grew.
Then I realized I might be the person most committed to the business. It frustrated me. Why weren’t we all working as hard as we could to solve this problem? Didn’t we all want the company to grow? Didn’t we want to educate as many creators as we could?
We all had different motivations. One of the founders was not interested in strategic planning, focused marketing plans, and diligent execution. He preferred to work like an artist — doing the work that most inspired him each day. You can’t plan for what’s going to inspire you on a given day!
Our lack of progress became too much. My mentality as an “owner” didn’t line up with the actual owners. They agreed. It was time to move on.
It was the most devastating professional departure of my career. I cared so much. Why didn’t it work?
We didn’t have talent-company fit.
Story 2: Encouraging a teammate to take the leap
Leading a company like ConvertKit, there will inevitably be teammates who join, spend years with us, and then move on to new opportunities.
One teammate followed this path. When they joined the company early in their career, the world of startups was new and exciting. The problems were hard, our values were aligned, and they were growing everyday in the job.
Fast forward several years. They were still in the same job. Progress had stagnated. They weren’t growing professionally. They had learned so much and formed new, more ambitious goals for their life and career.
We had effectively grown apart. We needed to acknowledge it.
For them to keep growing, they needed to take a leap of faith to start their own business. The company needed to revamp the area of ownership in the business to spark new growth.
When the teammate joined, we had great talent-company fit. An exciting, early stage startup and an enthusiastic, early career teammate.
As the company grew to a more mature stage of growth and our teammate gained more clarity on the problems they want to solve in their career, the fit changed.
We lost talent-company fit.
What creates talent-company fit?
Fit is the lever that turns potential into performance. But what drives talent-company fit?
The same factors that make work meaningful:
- Solve an important problem – the problem a company is solving needs to be a problem you care about solving
- Aligns with your beliefs – company mission, vision, and values should align with your personal values, principles, and beliefs
- Work with people you care about – the company should be filled with people you’re excited to work with
- Gives you freedom to fail – you need the autonomy to make mistakes; otherwise you’ll never get the chance to act like an owner
- Rewards you financially – money is not the thing, but all else equal getting paid what you’re worth makes for a better fit
- Pushes you to grow – no growth = boredom; boredom = stagnation; stagnation = slow rotting of your career capital
- Treats you equitably – no one wants to work for a racist, misogynist, or classist
- Encourages transparency – transparency is currency in the workplace; when you know what’s going on, you know if you fit
(Subscribe to my email list to get a free 10-day series that dives deep on the 8 factors of meaningful work.)
One word summarizes the most common thing I hear from subscribers about what is holding them back at work: “stuck.”
Being stuck is another way of saying you don’t have talent-company fit. Fit is the biggest differentiator for reaching your potential.
Three must-reads on talent-company fit
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho – this allegorical novel (167 pages in paperback) is the most re-read book on my shelf. It will feel elementary until and unless you allow yourself to explore the depth of connection to *why* you want the things you want in life. Opening up your soul once every 12-18 months by reading this book will help you stay in tune with whether you still have talent-company fit.
- How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You) by Tim Urban – Wait but Why is in my top five websites run by an individual on the internet. It’s remarkable for a host of reasons and this post is no exception. Tim’s superpower is breaking concepts down into frameworks that fit nicely in our brains. This is a perfect dissection of what we’re trying to satisfy with our work.
- How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love by Maria Popova – As naively altruistic as the title might seem to a tired, battered, and jaded soul, it reflects what we all want from the hours we spend on work every day. Plus, it’s basically seven links in one, so I can cheat here.
Do you have talent-company fit?
The question I’d like you to consider: Do you have talent-company fit where you are today?
Write down the answer that flashed across your intuitive brain before the rational brain could swipe it away out of fear. Whether you do or you don’t, you need to know the answer to reach your potential.