Work is not always fulfilling. That is why we call it work. But if, at the end of a year or five years, you can identify concrete examples of changes you have made that have improved your company or the careers of your employees, I think that is fulfilling.
In the middle 1950s, when I graduated from high school, the United States was producing 50 percent of the world’s GNP. It was the world’s factory for sophisticated goods — autos, trucks, farm machinery, appliances, railroad equipment, machine tools, and industrial equipment of all kinds. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler were world giants. Most of the factories were in the “industrial heartland” of the country, including my home state of Ohio. I went to the Harvard Business School thinking I wanted to be an executive in a manufacturing company.
After 10 years of slogging, I left manufacturing for an agribusiness and natural resources company. Being repotted was a success. I enjoyed being the CEO and building the new company.
In hindsight, I realize the lack of real opportunity in my early career was not due to any mistakes I made or to company politics. It was because the opportunities in a declining industry are so constrained, especially compared to an industry that is growing rapidly. With declining growth, companies and their executives become defensive. They do not take risks, and they focus on preserving the status quo.