When The Company You Work for No Longer Fits Who You Are
Over a year ago, my brother called me during the work day. It was highly unusual, especially since he became CEO of a small health care company several years ago. He had little time for chit chat.
That day, he was calling to tell me that he had been fired by his board. It was hardly a surprise. Over the last few years, he had focused more of his time externally, chairing a state task force for health care reform, speaking at conferences, and connecting with peers across the country. Meanwhile, his board wanted him to focus on running the company. He wondered how he had lasted so long.
Much has been written about hiring for fit—making sure that whoever you bring on board not only has the skill set, talents and experience to perform on the job but also the attitude, values, and personal style, that fit with the organizational culture. Companies hire for cultural fit as well as functional fit.
But what happens when the fit changes over time? We forget that fit is dynamic, not static. This can happen in one of three ways:
- The employee changes and the organization remains the same.
- The organization changes, and the employee stays the same.
- Both the employee and the organization change, in divergent ways.
Let’s look at each of these situations more closely.
Employee Changes and Organization Doesn’t
This is the most common case, because people change a lot faster than companies. It’s what happened to my brother as he found his passion in improving a system in place for health care delivery, not just in his company, but across the state (and now across the US, as he sits on a national task force to improve Medicare and Medicaid.)
A coaching client is experiencing similar career growth, being asked to speak at professional conferences and making connections to thought leaders in her discipline. Her voice is being heard among a group of well-respected colleagues, through blogging and speaking engagements. She’s developing a community of people who know, like and trust her, independent of who she works for. While she has new ideas to bring to her role of a director of supply chain, she knows that she’s running up against a company culture that hasn’t changed in decades. Her impact inside the company feels limited, when she knows that so much more is possible. She didn’t always feel that way, but like my brother, as she connected with more people in her discipline, she saw more opportunities for making a difference.
This is a story I’ve heard multiple times. What’s important to note is that in both of these cases, the person feels the tension first, the misalignment in attitude, culture, and/or values, before the organization does. In the best of cases, like my brother’s, the person’s eyes are wide open. They are prepared for the time when the gap is too large to reconcile, when the fit is so poor that everyone knows it. In rare cases, the person may even initiate the separation.
Organization Changes and Employee Doesn’t
This is a much harder pill to swallow, because of the chaos that comes with organizational change. The change could be triggered by new management, a merger or an acquisition. Employees who have grown up with the organization may resist adapting to what’s needed now and yearn for the old days.
I saw this with colleagues at Lucent Technologies, after a portion of the company was spun off as Avaya. Imagine the shock for a group of smart scientists and engineers, originally drawn to a company known for its camaraderie and think tank-like atmosphere, now being run by private equity. This type of misalignment often results in layoffs where people feel bitter and blindsided, not because they didn’t see it coming, but because they refused to adapt to a changing environment. Instead, they chose to adopt the role of victim. They are unprepared for life outside of “the bubble” that is their workplace. In the worst of cases, the employee’s identity is closely tied to his job and employer.
Employee Changes and Organization Changes
When I was hired into Lucent Technologies as a software engineer, I was eager to work on new products. Six years later, after tremendous personal growth and a career change, I wanted to be free of the shackles of an organization that I had fallen out of alignment with. The organization was also changing, with new management and a poor economy. Employee satisfaction and well-being were less important than downsizing a workforce to cut costs. Instead of focusing on thriving, the company was putting all of its energy into surviving.
By the time I was laid off, managers in the organization and I both knew it was time for me to leave. I just didn’t want to admit it. But it became increasingly clear that I no longer wanted to contribute my technical skills and my people skills weren’t what the company wanted. I had gotten my worst performance review in over 15 years. And while I was working for a VP on a special project, I was out of the mainstream development that would impact the bottom line with new products.
Fortunately, I had prepared myself for life outside of the company—with a diverse network, a strong personal brand, updated skills relevant to a new career, and clear purpose for the next chapter of my work. The organization had changed, but so had I. My pink slip was a validation of how far I had come. I took it as a signal that I was ready to fly.
Gen Y Misfits
There is one last misfit situation which I haven’t covered. That’s the case where someone is hired in, already knowing they aren’t a great fit, but they are hoping to ride it out. In which case, the best case is that whatever value is exchanged between the employee and employer is exactly what both sides needed. The employee leaves, knowing that she has given her best and gained from experience that can be built upon. This may be what many Gen Y employees experience in their first couple of jobs, knowing that they’ll stay just a short time. They want more than what a single employer could offer them. That’s okay, too.
The Gift of a Misfit
Whatever the situation, if you feel that tension of a misalignment between who are and the culture of your workplace, think of that tug as a gift. It’s the impetus to find work and an environment that is a better fit, one that is more satisfying. If you haven’t prepared for that big step, now is the time to do it. Strengthen your network. Hone your skills. Clarify your purpose and what makes you distinct in your work. Identify what you need to do your best work.
All of this takes time and effort, but you’ll be glad you started now.
Carol Ross has been a career coach and entrepreneur for nearly a decade and a blogger since 2005. Her newest program, Break Out of Your Bubble, www.breakoutofyourbubble.com, launches on April 24. This series of live and recorded webinars with expert speakers is designed to help you position your career for what’s next, even when your job is crazy busy. Sign up by April 23 and use discount code, JASON, to get $40 off the regular price of $97. Click here to register.