Career Snag or Fatal Blow?

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The Choice is Yours

Do most executives know how to navigate through their career challenges as effectively as their business challenges? Not in my experience. See if this scenario sounds familiar….

John was a senior level manager at a Fortune 500 company. Throughout his career, John had enjoyed good working relationships with his immediate managers. He knew how to get his job done. He knew how to work well with management—or so he thought. Then he hit a career snag named Bob.

It is a story many executives have experienced directly. Under a corporate re-organization, John was newly assigned to head up a division staff function for a former colleague, Bob. The two executives had risen in the company, but with very different leadership styles and strategies. Amidst great external and internal pressure to improve company performance, John and Bob did not find a meeting of the minds in their new reporting relationship. For the first time in his career, John got a poor performance review. And given John’s level and the financial pressures facing the organization, this had all the signs of a job-ending situation.

John was faced with two choices: (1) Leave the company he had worked so hard for and still believed in; or (2) Learn from this snag in his career and turn the situation around.

Having coached hundreds of professionals in my career, I have found that most executives face this juncture at least once their career. People come to me expressly for help in figuring out what to do. Should they resign? Should they try and turn the situation around given that they don’t have a good relationship with their current boss, who might be a key ingredient in the company’s future?

My job is to help these executives make a smart decision and a smart plan to implement their decision. Not surprisingly, the approach I teach mirrors, for the most part, the steps executives take in leading their own companies:

1.    Assess the situation: The emotion is running high when these high-achievers hit a snag. What is primarily involved in this step relates to differentiating the thinking/feelings that come with a bruised ego versus the thinking/feelings associated with a smart forward-focused plan.

2.    Decide on the best outcome: You need to be clear on what your short/intermediate- and longer-term career plan is. If you don’t have a current career plan (and I don’t mean a resume, but a thoughtful assessment of career interests, skills, and values which has been objectively translated into a series of options for compatible career assignments), consider getting help to develop one (ask yourself: would you lead without a business plan?). In a career snag situation, there are two basic alternatives: turn the situation around or move on (which may or may not involve leaving the company) Again, the best decisions in this situation are based on a thoughtful, current, and long-term (i.e., non-reactive) career plan. (NOTE: As is the case with facing any type of challenge, putting your head in the sand or reacting out of pride is not advisable. Likewise, a poor performance review at this level is rarely due to lack of effort, so trying harder by itself is rarely a viable answer).

3.    Learn: Figure out your contribution to the current snag. In my experience, just like a bad marriage, it is never just one person’s fault or cause. On the bright side, when faced with snags in important areas in our own lives we have the opportunity for real learning, i.e. learning that can change our capacity for effectiveness long-term. Thus, while THE OTHER GUY (i.e., Bob or any boss) shares complicity in a bad review scenario (i.e., perhaps the boss was late, indirect, or missing in action when it came to clear, constructive, and timely feedback), that fact doesn’t really matter unless improving Bob is the overriding objective on John’s career plan.

4.    Plan: How are you specifically going to resolve the performance expectation difference with the boss? How exactly are you going to proceed differently moving forward, and in ways you can be proud of 6 months from now? Evaluating any approach in terms of the longer term is critical for those who are inclined towards impulsive reactions. In most instances, the greatest shift can begin to occur when clearer CONTRACTING (or re-clarification of performance expectations and requests) happens.

5.    Act: Ensure that there is someone to hold you to your plan. When it gets hard, when your ego is piqued again, when you think your boss is gloating—there needs to be someone to make sure you keep moving ahead with your turnaround plan versus engaging in a battle of pride, which is not an atypical dance in executive row.

After reviewing this approach, the vast majority of my clients choose to try to turn it around first.

Turnarounds are a Learning Opportunity

People who effectively go through a turnaround opportunity learn how to:

  • Not be defensive under stress and in the face of criticism
  • Contract for new expectations
  • Take 100% responsibility for your 50% of a relationship
  • Adjust to a new set of demands when your ego is bruised
  • Rise above personality issues and focus on principles
  • Meet someone’s expectations in a way that serves the larger enterprise

While their ‘egospeak’ might still be whispering to them:

“Go now, Oh Unappreciated One, Go To BetterLand Incorporated, where The Real Good Guys will appreciate your brilliance,” my clients can usually see that achieving a successful turnaround would build career management skills and expand their career options.

Once over this hurdle, the next biggest concern usually has to do with how they can actually turn around the perception and relationship with their boss.

There is good news to share. Each time I have embarked on the journey of turning around a professional situation such as this, the road is paved with the same steps:

Step 1: Declare your intentions. I tell my clients that while there are no wrong answers, an ambiguous or half-hearted commitment will decidedly not work. You must be clear with yourself and your management. Are you willing to give up on the who’s right/who’s wrong issue and see this as a chance to turn around your performance rather than as career defeat or a bad boss story?

Having made the decision to turnaround the situation, declare this as your intention to your manager.

Note that how you frame this intention is critical. Admit that you have decided to turnaround the situation. Being defensive will only make things worse.

Things Not to Do

There are a number of things you should NOT do if you get blindsided with a poor performance review.

Don’t:

  • Get defensive
  • Give your boss feedback
  • Take up your boss’s time to process the situation
  • See this as anything other than a turnaround opportunity
  • Confuse this approach with signaling that you think your boss was perfect or right
  • Make a decision to stay or go in this heightened emotional state
  • Expect this to be easy—behaving well in these times is often what defines our relational skill set

Be sure that you state your intention clearly—no sharing of blame, no upward feedback, no whining, no excuses—simply own the opportunity to create a turnaround.

I advise my clients to incorporate the following points in declaring their intention:

Thank the executive with whom you are having problems for his/her input. Tell the executive that you want most definitely to be more effective in his/her eyes. State clearly that: (1) it is YOUR responsibility to turn around the situation; (2) you have made the commitment to do so, and; (3) you will work tirelessly to make that happen. Be aware: If this is not your sincere intention, the words will ring hollow.

Step 2: Clarify what the manager needs to see differently to be convinced that you’re meeting expectations more effectively. Be clear on what these changes would look like. Pinpoint where/how your boss thinks you have fallen short and what shifts in your style or strategy need to take place. Based upon feedback from your boss, summarize what you need to deliver and make a contract with your boss that you will meet this expectation. Set a timeline for making these changes and establish metrics for measuring your progress.

Step 3: Initiate periodic updates. Tell your boss that you will assume responsibility for checking in on a regular basis to see if you are on the right track. Ask what will work best for him/her—i.e., live meetings, phone meetings, voicemail or email—and do what he/she prefers. Be sure that you then follow through and update your boss on your progress in making the agreed upon adjustments.

Don’t expect these steps to be easy. Taking complete responsibility for our performance never is. There will always be minefields and the key steps—focusing on turning around the situation, contracting for making this change happen, and doing so in a completely non-defensive manner—are all challenging tasks. These are in fact ‘adult tasks’ and our emotional selves (i.e., the child in each of us) want to react, blame, and deflect. This response is a ‘normal’ (i.e., non-pathological) impulse. But choosing to rise above emotional impulses that conflict with a longer-term goal, and behave intentionally, is a clear differentiator of a healthy adult.

The key point is not to react impulsively. Your boss may test you to see if you are really going to take full responsibility. If he/she does, it will be tempting to blame and deflect. But don’t. While it is unlikely to happen, the only instance in which you should share thoughts on your boss’s behavior is if you are asked directly. For instance, if Bob says to John, “Tell me how I could have managed this better. I would greatly value your input.”

By taking responsibility for turning around the situation, the prize is yours. You will learn valuable information about yourself and your career. Having gone through these steps, you will be better able to determine clearly and purposefully if you want to stay with the organization. You will have expanded both your skills and your options—and that is effective career management.

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Laurie Anderson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience as an executive coach to leaders in organizations ranging from Fortune 100 companies to the World Bank. Visit www.drlaurieanderson.com or call 1-708-524-2444 for more information on Laurie’s services for individuals, groups, and organizations.

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