Change Anything QA

How to Save a Stagnant Career

Dear David,

What should I do if I believe I have reached my “peak” in my company and professional growth is stagnant? I posed this question to HR and managers only to receive dull feedback, which makes me feel they have no ideas or suggestions. I suggested I earn another bachelor’s degree in a field we need, but the tuition assistance program only permits me to take classes directly related to my current position. I have my letter of resignation ready to go and am simply waiting for the job market to improve, but I hate to start over again and prefer to avoid it if possible. What should I do?

Needing Growth

Dear Needing Growth,

Thanks for your question. Many people are in your position—often without even knowing it. Their careers have stagnated and their jobs may even be at risk. This is a tough situation, but there are actions anyone can take to regain control of a stalled career.

We studied this question while writing our book Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. We went into organizations and asked people: “If you were facing a really tough problem at work, and had time to get input from someone in your work group, who would you go to for the best, most trustworthy advice? You can name up to three people.” We found there was a lot of consensus on who these people were. We got what statisticians call a “power curve.” Half the people weren’t named by any of their peers; however, about ten percent were named by nearly half of their peers and were recognized by everyone as the “go to” people. Not surprisingly, managers also named them as the most promotable.

When we look closely at these highly valued individuals—across a wide range of organizations—we learn they share the same three characteristics:

1.  Know Your Stuff. These promotable people are top performers at their current jobs, and put in regular effort to stay on top. If they are software developers then they are among the most skilled at writing code. If they are salespeople then they are among the most skilled at closing sales. They work hard to keep current and hone their craft.

2. Focus on the Right Stuff. Top performers seek out the problems that have the greatest strategic importance to their team, their manager, and their organization—and find ways to contribute in these areas. How do they get to these mission-critical assignments? First, they are intensely interested in understanding their teams’, managers’, and organizations’ priorities, and the challenges these priorities entail. Second, they equip themselves to make their best and highest contribution to addressing these challenges. They work on themselves, their skill set, and their access to critical tasks.

3. Build a Reputation for Being Helpful. Top performers are networkers. But their networks aren’t just a collection of business cards and friends. These promotable people use their expertise and time to develop a reputation for being helpful. They become widely known and respected by others because they help others solve their problems.

With this as a backdrop, consider what you can do to position yourself for career growth inside your organization, or potentially in a different organization. Begin with an honest, steely-eyed assessment of where you stand on the three characteristics of highly valued employees. Do you have a reputation for knowing your stuff, focusing on the right stuff, and being helpful?

Second, work to improve your reputation in these areas. Begin by asking some questions that are a bit different from “what are my career opportunities here?” Instead, get some informal time with the leaders and peers you respect most, and ask them about the most important priorities they see, the most critical challenges they face, and the best way you can help them achieve their goals. There is nothing wrong with asking about career opportunities, but those questions haven’t yielded the results you want. So, try asking questions that will help you build your reputation.

As you discover key priorities and challenges, you may learn you need to skill up, but it’s doubtful you need another bachelor’s degree. It’s more likely a few classes, a certification, or a volunteer assignment will get you the skills and experience you need. For example, if you are trying to get into a project management or supervisory role, can you find a well-known nonprofit organization in the community that would have a specific short-term project you could assist them with in the evenings or on the weekends? You could then add these classes, training certifications, and experiences to your resume and include the people you worked for as references.

These suggestions require that you don’t allow yourself to be limited to what your organization is willing to sponsor. Instead, you may need to invest your own resources and time outside of work in the short-term to achieve your long-term goals. I also want to emphasize the importance of maintaining strong relationships with HR and your management team. You don’t want to have the reputation of a dissatisfied employee—a complainer. That would undercut the very reputation you are trying to build.

I wish you the very best in your career development.


Kerrying On

The Year Without a Christmas Tree

In the late 1980s, Lynn, a friend of the family, approached my wife, Louise, with an urgent request. She explained that she had signed a contract to run the Santa Claus photo concessions at ten different Los Angeles-area malls. After weeks of searching, she had found nine managers but was desperate to have Louise take charge of the photo booth located a few miles north of our home in Irvine.

“If I do manage the Santa concession,” Louise responded, “where am I supposed to find a bunch of qualified Kris Kringles?”

“It is tough,” Lynn replied. “The men who are available and willing to work as a mall Santa are typically shifty, tipsy, grimy, stinky, queasy, seedy, and horribly unreliable. Sort of like the other seven dwarfs.”

“So there’s going to be a long line of children,” Louise said, “who can’t wait to talk with Jolly Old Saint Nick. They’ll practically be jumping out of their skin. Meanwhile, I’ll be on pins and needles wondering if the next Saint Nick will actually show up for his shift? And even if he does show up, I’ll be worrying about whether he’s sober or not?”

“Basically,” Lynn said. “Most of the Santas you hire will be quite unreliable. But you got the jolly part wrong. If you’re not careful, Santas can actually be too jolly. It’s against company policy for our Santas to shout ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ It’s considered infantile, hackneyed, and overdone.”

With this daunting introduction, Louise accepted the invitation. It was an invitation into the bizarre world of managing men who are willing to take the taxing and low-paying job of dealing with children and getting them to take a good photo—a task they perform while dressed in a sweltering velvet costume and donning a fake beard tainted by years of filtering the foul-smelling breath of pizza-eating alcoholics.

Sure enough, the SoCal candidates who showed up for the Santa job interview weren’t exactly taking a break from their promising careers in acting, modeling, or broadcast journalism. They looked more like extras from a vagrant movie.

Louise had been told to select younger men where possible because wrangling kids for a four-hour shift can be quite arduous. With this in mind, she immediately hired the two college students who applied for the job. She chose the remaining Santas from a pool of aspirants who weren’t the least bit merry, were alarmingly jittery, and seemed far more interested in not just the day they would get their first paycheck, but the day and time they would be paid. “Is our first payday next Thursday at six, or more like six thirty?” Hmmm.

So my business partner David Maxfield (always the good sport) and I volunteered to attend the official Santa training course in case Louise needed a certified Santa to fill in at the last minute. You can’t be too careful. If you let an unlicensed Santa into the mall, who knows how many triple “Ho!”s he’ll fire off before he’s trivialized the entire holiday season?

When opening day arrived, Louise received a phone call from Sammy, her designated lead Santa. He was a handsome, affable, junior-college kid—and for those reasons had been scheduled to take the all-important opening shift. As it turned out, Sammy was also fond of “fake baking” and figured that this Santa job would give him a chance to “show off his cool tan to lots of cute girls at the mall.” (His exact words.) Unfortunately, Sammy had fallen asleep in the tanning booth and rendered his skin holiday red and terribly painful. So Sammy Santa, Louise’s go-to guy, never put on the beard.

When the emergency call came in, I happened to be available. As luck would have it, the opening-day-sweltering-in-the-Santa-suit duty was given to yours truly. I made my grand entrance into the mall by strolling around the food court, jingling a string of sleigh bells, and shouting, “Merry Christmas!” “Feliz Navidad!” and “Guten Gibbenshtuff!” (I made up that last greeting.)

As predicted, David and I filled in quite often that season. Also as predicted, the job was exhausting. This was especially true when we worked with kids who freaked out at the mere sight of the bearded stranger. This didn’t stop parents from literally throwing their screaming, scratching, and kicking child (not unlike a bobcat being tossed from a bag) onto good old Santa’s lap. So David and I wrote and handed out a page of instructions to waiting parents on how to prepare a frightened child for a visit with Saint Nick. We drew our recommendations from the latest systematic desensitization research, which had been largely completed with subjects who had a paralyzing fear of boa constrictors. To our delight, the fear-reduction techniques we suggested worked quite nicely across species.

As the season of wrangling kids and babysitting Santas mercifully came to a close, Louise and I were so completely spent that we never got around to decorating our own home. Our kids still refer to 1988 as “the year without a Christmas tree.” David and I did our best to portray a sincere and caring St. Nick, and the teenage girls who served as helpers had been steadfast, efficient, and delightful. But after working a month with listless, leering, stinking, complaining, belching, and missing Santas—come December 24th, none of us felt the least bit jolly.

And then I overheard Katrina, one of the teenage helpers, say something remarkable as Louise passed out the final paychecks. Katrina quietly instructed her mother to send her money to a children’s charity. I was shocked. This young woman who had worked hard for her money was now giving away her entire paycheck. I learned from Katrina’s mother that her daughter had spent every penny she had earned that season sponsoring two orphan girls who lived in Guatemala. Katrina never said a word about her generosity.

Inspired by Katrina, my thoughts drifted from the killjoy Santas to the darling children who came through the line. Their unbridled excitement filled the holiday season with an electric and palpable joy. Most couldn’t wait to share their lists filled with exciting action figures and beautiful princesses. But some had a more serious agenda. They asked Santa to reunite their families. And a few children, following in Katrina’s footsteps, requested a present for their brother or sister, but not a single thing for themselves. Even when encouraged to come up with something for themselves, they typically responded, “No, nothing for me. Just a bike for my sister.” Disguised as the Jolly Old Elf, I struggled to swallow the lump in my throat that surfaced from such innocent and selfless requests.

All of this magic took place under the watch of a bunch of costumed scoundrels who could scarcely hold a job and who weren’t allowed to shout a single “Ho!” Despite our fair share of frustrations and all the humbugs we grumbled under our breath, during the Christmas of 1988, the holiday found a way to create its own magic. And what I’ve noticed every year since is that no matter the challenges and chaos of life, somehow it always does—with or without a Christmas tree.

Crucial Conversations QA

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Dear Joseph,

I work very closely with someone who I really like and respect. I have one concern about how he tends to rely on me to deal with all criticisms directed at our shared projects. I have tried bringing up the issue and holding the crucial conversation about it, but it didn’t go well. My partner became upset and told me we needed to change the subject because he was getting all worked up. At this point I dropped it.

Our mutual success relies on an open, free-flowing, honest relationship. I’m afraid I’ve done some damage in the trust department. So here’s my question: If the first attempt at a crucial conversation fails and trust is damaged, but the issue is still important, should I try again later? How do I undo the damage I’ve done?

Out of Sync

Dear Out of Sync,

You are already a mile down the road to solving this problem. The fact that you genuinely like and respect this person means your heart is in the right place. Here are a couple of suggestions for repairing any damage that might have been done in your previous attempt, and for making it safe to try again.

First, you need to remember that people usually don’t get defensive because of what you’re saying. What went wrong in your first conversation was not that you complained about your colleague’s failure to step up to criticism with you. What went wrong was that something in your conversation made it seem like either you disrespected your colleague, or that your intention in raising the issue was hurtful. In Crucial Conversations vocabulary, either Mutual Respect or Mutual Purpose did not exist, so your colleague became defensive. With enough safety, you can talk with almost anyone about almost anything. So, the questions you should be asking yourself are:

1. What did I do that might have communicated a lack of respect or a bad intention? For example: Think about your tone of voice (were you unusually quiet or loud–communicating upset emotions?); body language (did you fail to make eye contact, frown or in other ways act differently from when you communicate respect?); word choice (did you use hot emotion words to begin with like, “you’ve been disloyal” or “you don’t back me up”?).

2. What did I fail to do that would have reassured my colleague of my respect and positive intentions? For example: When he became defensive, did you fail to “step out of the content” and reaffirm your respect and purpose? When you started the conversation did you jump right into the issue without first establishing mutual purpose and respect?

Second, you need to have another conversation. But the topic of this one is different. The crucial conversation you now need to hold is, “What went wrong with the last crucial conversation?” Here’s a way you might begin. Notice that this suggested approach models how you can begin by building mutual purpose and mutual respect:

“I’ve been worried since our last conversation. I wanted to talk about something that was concerning me and in retrospect I believe I communicated some things I didn’t intend. Somehow or other I think I came across as insulting, or attacking. I really didn’t want to do that. I am so sorry. Could we talk for a few minutes about what I did wrong in that conversation? I’d really like to know so I can try again to resolve this issue without coming across in a way I don’t want to.”

This little script communicates your respect for the other person, and clarifies your intention. Having delivered it, listen like crazy. Ask clarifying questions. Try to come to understand what you did or didn’t do that made it possible for your colleague to misunderstand your respect or intent.

Finally, consider a skill we call “Contrasting.” This skill is extremely helpful in building–and when needed, rebuilding–safety. One of the best ways to prepare for a crucial conversation is to ask yourself, “How could the other person misunderstand my respect? My intentions?” Once you’ve answered that, fend off the misunderstanding by making a statement that does two things:

1. Debunks the misunderstanding (Specifically point out what you don’t mean to communicate, e.g., “I don’t want you to think I am dissatisfied with our working relationship. I am not raising this issue because I am disappointed with your work or our relationship at all.”)

2. Confirms your true intentions or respect (“I have the utmost respect for you and love working with you. My only intent here is to point out something that you may not even realize is happening that is causing some problems for me. Would that be okay?”)

If you start off this way, you can avoid a lot of defensiveness later on.

Good luck!