In several of the articles I write I discuss the brass ring, or the promise by the employer that there is huge opportunity (and commensurate reward) just waiting to be taken advantage of. In many instances the crux of my argument for being wary when coming on board to a new position is that the employer of record is demanding participation in a no-win spiral. The employer is holding onto the odd hope that the ‘new blood’ will be able to bring enough change to the department/territory/initiative to drive high levels of productivity where there wasn’t before.
My thesis for these situations is that there is probably truth that the job isn’t being worked as hard as it could be. This is because the last guy/gal realized rather quickly that the odds of success were so slim that it was more waste than opportunity to attempt to tackle the efforts that were needed to affect change in the situation. They understood that to realize the promised benefits of success in these situations is an exercise in futility. His/Her time was better spent on areas where they could make some progress, or more likely they spent that time networking for a new job. This is why the Professional Individual Contributor just got the job. The important point is that the employer usually understands this but the doesn’t care if it’s a futile effort on the part of their new employee. The hiring manager usually has very limited bandwidth and their own unobtainable metrics and is hoping they have just hired a magical rainmaker. Rainmakers are something that in my experience is myth 99% of the time, and when there is one it’s more about timing and luck than skill.
Presidents don’t get elected because they say “I may do some slight tweaks, but mostly I’m going to not change anything.”
There are innumerable ways in which you can be ‘set up to fail’ in a new job. The common thread in all of them is the concept of an inability for nearly anyone who is placed in the position to achieve success in that position without luck so rare it’s akin to a lottery win.
In almost every single scenario I have ever encountered, the new employee is tasked in some way to be a change agent. In these types of placements things do need to change, but not necessarily in the way the newly landed professional is told they need to . This type of change, change that will actually achieved the stated end goal generally requires creativity and possibly organizational aggressiveness. For example, if there isn’t enough available business in the territory that supposedly just wasn’t being worked hard enough by the last guy/gal, the new rep may need to push to have their area expanded so it will make the numbers it needs to make to support him or her, otherwise it’s a disaster waiting to happen. If the macro situation doesn’t change it’s almost a guarantee the new professional gets shown the door or was smart enough to scoot out before they were walked out, and the next PIC is brought in and given the story that the last guy didn’t do anything and they have confidence that you, the new guy they believe in, has what it takes to make things happen. This cycle in a nutshell is why so many professionals get stuck in dead end career spirals.
Just so you know i’m not beating up on business completely, there is the flip side of that coin. It’s much rarer, but really does happen from time to time. This is the scenario is where the hiring manager is telling the truth, and the new employee just needs to make that change. In one instance I knew of an individual with tremendous organizational skills was hired to clean up a disaster left by a previous coordinator. She was given exactly the situation that was described to her during the recruiting process. It took her a year but she was able to make the changes that were needed to get the organization back on track. It’s rare but sometimes you really are given a mess to clean up. In another example, there was one company I was employed with where the former sales and service rep had a substance issue. The territory truly wasn’t worked which is why there’s so much potential for growth. In these types of instances there clearly is a need for behaviors and activities to change within the position. In this case, the guy/gal who got the positions just needed to get up before noon and make a few phone calls. No matter if it’s a territory that needs to be worked or the organization and rules need to be followed, There may actually be a true need for a different trajectory of activity. I want to reiterate that these situations are rare for the career of any professional individual contributor. It is the perfect alignment of luck, skills and need and the end result is almost always success. Count yourself lucky if you fall into one of these situations.
So to recap the first way to approach needed change is to define what really needs to change, but this may not be what you are told in an interview. Once you figure it out what really needs to be done then try to change that to make the job sustainable before management decides they need to ‘go in a different direction’. The second way is to focus on the honestly communicated need for change and to fix the problem.
There is a third way to approach changing the environment when tasked to do so in a new position. Sometimes ‘steady as she goes’ is the best way forward. Just because you are new in the position does not mean that the position needs to change, nor does it mean the priorities need to change. Even if management suggests you change thing, doing it vs. looking like you’re doing it is something entirely different, and maybe even the subject of another post.
Three Examples of situations where you shouldn’t change anything:
- The first example of where you shouldn’t change anything is when you do your research (and you should always learn as much as you can before and during your entry into a new position) and the answers to your questions give you a sense that you should be cautious for whatever reason. I think think of several examples but they all boil down to the reality that your activities may not be able to affect the required change. I think the best example I ever heard was when I asked the owner of a health and fitness center in a small town how much of a bump in monthly memberships did he expect from New Year’s resolutions? – It was late December when I asked him this question. His response surprised me. He said (paraphrased) “we’ll get a few, but you can only catch as much as your pond is big”. Meaning, he can’t expect much because he was in a small town. Yes, that’s a sales analogy, but it can happen organizationally.
- The second example of a situation of where you shouldn’t change anything is if the previous person was smart enough to figure out the most efficient way of doing things. Maybe it’s organizational structure, maybe it’s the operating environment, or possibly culture or skills of the people who are involved. Regardless, if hiring management thinks it’s a good idea to push for additional or different efforts, yes the previous person doing the job wasn’t completely incompetent, then there were probably some valid reasons why they did what they did. It’s best if you understand those reasons before you change anything.
- The third and final example has to do with time. Sometimes the learning curve for what is really needed is much longer than you are lead to believe. In instances where cycles are measured in years, it may take a few years to really quantify exactly what needs to be done to achieve the stated goals. Obvious examples are government and educational institutions. Radical change in these environments may offer up good sound bites for the press but it is almost always ineffective because it may not really change the behavior of the underlying institutions or the outcomes. This type of situation can happen in small business too. If there is an owner who has been around for a long time and likes things the way they are, they may not be too keen on changes, even if there are changes to be made.
We live in an age where change associated with the next big effort is both celebrated and demanded. Presidents don’t get elected because they say “I may do some slight tweaks, but mostly i’m not going to change anything.” How often do computer companies recruit aspiring coders right out of school or coming from another company who say “I just want to work on making sure the legacy product continues to work well on all the new hardware”? The answer is never. Change is sexy, change is dynamic, change is a pathway to success and elevation out of our positions if we are to believe the talking points of company leadership.
The challenge for the professional individual contributor is that sometimes the most difficult thing to do in these instances is to not ‘do’ anything. It’s exciting to come in and believe that our ideas are unique. That we can achieve what others can not. Maybe the biggest change we need to make is the change in our thinking that change is always the best route forward. Look at the bright side, if you get the job and find out it’s a no-win situation, then at least you’ll have some runway to change the really important things. You know, like your resume.