Change Your Habits, not Just Your Habitat!

In my coaching practice I often come across clients who want to make a change in their place of work because of a variety of reasons: being there too long, stagnant career, bad boss, and so on. When I probe further I often find that, part of the reason why a person wants to bolt, even from a highly coveted company, is how they have handled themselves and their situations in their past, including some key relationships that matter in advancing their career. So, rather than understanding the real reason for their career predicament, they often misinterpret and externalize their predicament and think that a new venue, especially if it allows them a better opportunity, would be a way to rehabilitate their stagnant career. It is not long before they come to realize their shortcomings, as the same pattern begins to emerge in their new habitat!

Recently, I was re-approached by a client whom I had helped transition to another company after she was at one company for nearly 15 years and had felt stagnant for a variety of reasons. She felt strongly that the only reason why she was not being promoted to a manager role, despite her stellar job performance as an individual contributor, promoting the company’s success was that the company did not have an appropriate managerial role for her. So, when she found one outside her company, she quickly decided to take that job, both to advance her career and somewhat out of spite. Little did she realize that without fully exploring her own limitations before this transition or without preparing well for the new job, she was setting herself up for failure!

Being a new employee in a new role she struggled through her first few months and finally got used to her responsibility as a manager. When she completed her first year and received her performance review she was shocked to find that she was rated at the bottom in ranking among her peers. She was both disappointed and frustrated about the outcome and was trying to find some reason how this could have happened to her despite her herculean efforts to get back on track after the initial struggle in her new job. Since she had not kept up our coaching relationship after her transition I had no insight into her plight and had no clue about her struggles.

When I saw her again after her setback, we revisited her previous job and explored some of the themes that were now clues to her career pattern. As a result of that session here is what I walked away with. I also asked her to take actions based on these insights to create her own recovery plan:

1.     It is often a mistake to blame everyone else for your career predicament, such as lack of promotion, lack of new challenges, or lack of respect from peers and managers. Often, the root-cause of such predicaments is your own handling of your situation and not recognizing what help you need to overcome the situation. In the case of this client I should have insisted on analyzing her work patterns and finding avenues to correct them, rather than putting her in a new habitat where she would continue to practice the same habits as she did in her previous job. During our early sessions I was unable to get my client to accept that this was a worthwhile exploration. She just wanted that promotion so badly!

2.     It is much more productive and useful to analyze what needs to be corrected in your own work patterns and find ways to make it right in a known habitat, than to walk away from it and into a new habitat. In a new habitat there are just too many variables that simply cannot be controlled. Without changing your own habits of behavior the same pattern can repeat, as it happened in this case. What makes it worse in the new habitat is that you have such short runway to correct yourself with so many intractable variables. Also, in a new habitat one false step in the beginning makes it virtually impossible to correct for a meaningful recovery.

3.     When one moves up from an individual contributor to a manager, they must recognize that the role a manager plays is very different from the one played by an individual contributor. The latter is given known problems and is expected to solve them, whereas a manager is expected to spot problems, mobilize a solution, and prevent further problems. A manager is also responsible more for the overall output of the entire work group than she is for the technical excellence of her own work, as she was in her previous job. To many, this is a chasm difficult to cross, even in a safe environment.

4.     Not understanding the expectations of the boss and not knowing when to ask for help are two of the most detrimental factors to the success of a new employee in a new habitat. They are afraid of both, being seen as needy on the one hand and coming across as officious, on the other!

5.     One of the more effective ways to start a new job is with a 100-Day plan. This plan is prepared, once the new employee starts working in a new habitat and has espied opportunities that need attention and that create visibility when addressed. Getting her boss’ concurrence on such a plan would have set her course for success, because what she was going to do would have then been in agreement with the boss’ agenda! In the case of this client she ignored my suggestions to undertake such a plan because she felt that she knew what was needed to be done in her new job! She also felt that her boss would tell her what she should do (a typical individual contributor mindset!).

Breaking old habits is hard, but what makes it even harder is not being even aware of them and by being blindsided by your own hubris. The best way to get into a new job is to first find what the real reasons are for your getting stuck in the current job and then dealing with them to overcome your own obstacles. Once you have changed your habits in the place you know, you are much more likely to succeed in a new habitat, even with a promotion under your belt!


  1. mark says:

    Great incite…would love to integrate this into my current situation as well. My own patterns definitely need evaluation. Thx Dilip.

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