15 Oct. 2012 | Comments (0)
If you sift through recent employment figures in the United States, you'll find an intriguing trend: a steady uptick in the number of people leaving their jobs to go to work with new companies. For several years workers held on to their positions thanks to the recession, but we're starting to see employees testing the waters, especially at the managerial level. This raises an important question. How will you respond when opportunity knocks — and how can you prepare for success once it does?
We all know of people who have jumped ship and found great success in a new company. Less visible are those who fail or flame out when they make the change. Although the figures are elusive, the majority of data I've seen suggests that 40 to 50 percent of new hires at the middle level of management and above have not succeeded in their new companies 24 months after hire. That means you have about a one out of two chance that things will work out when you join a new company in a managerial position. So, what can you do to shift the odds to your favor?
First, think about why you're considering the change. If it's because you feel like you're not moving forward in your current company as quickly as your peers, don't rush into a new company. Instead start by soliciting what I call the "feedback that really counts": how you are perceived by those who make promotional decisions in your company. What skills have you demonstrated? Which do you need to develop? And is there anything holding you back that you need to know about? Talented managers often get frustrated by their pace of career advancement, sign on with a new company, and run into the same problems that were an obstacle in their prior organization.
For example, Frank was a highly-skilled finance manager who advanced quickly early in his career based on his technical knowledge and desire for results. Over the past few years, however, his progress had stagnated, and he missed out on several promotions. Senior executives were encouraging. Hang in there; your time will come; things will open up soon. When he asked why he wasn't getting ahead, his boss suggested that he improve his "communication" skills. This surprised Frank since he prided himself in his ability to speak and write clearly, and communicating to his team had always been a priority. When he probed for specific examples of communications issues, it turned out that Frank was right. His communication skills were fine — it was his inflexible, "my way or the highway" style that was holding him back. According to his peers, he needed to listen better and not get locked into his own position when there were differences of opinion.
Unfortunately, Frank saw this as "playing politics" and an unnecessary impediment to getting things done. Anxious to move ahead, he used his contacts in the industry to find a new position — but ended up leaving his new job after only nine months. The official reason was that he wasn't a cultural fit. On one level this was true, but it didn't address the finer point. Frank had joined a highly-collegial firm that valued collaboration and consensus decision making, and his new peers described him as arrogant and unwilling to learn how the company did things before rushing to try to sell his plans to senior management.
It's usually easier to tackle leadership problems like Frank's in your current company where you know the business and the players than in a new organization where people are less forgiving. Don't underestimate the challenges of trying to address them when you join a new company, since you'll be facing a lot of pressure to learn the ropes, develop a new set of relationships, and produce results fast.
That said, there are certainly times when you should explore the outside job market to increase the pace of your career advancement. It's probably time to consider moving on if you face one of the following situations: 1) you've been passed over multiple times and have not succeeded in ferreting out the real scoop about the skills you need to display to move ahead; or 2) you are locked in your current position by a long-tenured manager and have been unsuccessful in engineering a move to a new part of the organization. If that's the case, the company may implicitly be telling you that it's quite happy to see you continue in your current role.
If venturing into the job market as the economy rebounds is on your radar screen, now's the time to take some proactive steps. How strong is your external network? Too often managers focus virtually all of their attention on their companies and become internally focused, thus cutting themselves off from outside perspectives and sources of information. If you're in that boat, get active in industry and professional groups or civic/community organizations that can expand your range of contacts.
Beyond serving as your eyes and ears regarding new job openings, members of your network can help you determine whether a new company would fit well with your style. In what kind of environment do you thrive? Do you prefer a fast-paced company that stimulates a fair amount of internal competition or a more methodical firm that puts a premium on planning and getting everyone on board with new initiatives? Keep in mind that most external searches take four to six months to complete — and then the company gives you a weekend to decide whether or not to accept a job offer. If the time is approaching for you to test the outside market, get out ahead of the curve and build a network that can quickly put you in touch with people who know the new firm and help you know if you'll be part of the 50 percent of new hires who will make it.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 09/24/2012.
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