Here’s a simple little exercise I’ve learned to do regularly to see whether or not I belong in a particular organization or relationship. Look around. (If you're in an office while you’re reading this and you can actually see other people in your organization, go ahead and actually look around. Otherwise, use this as an opportunity to metaphorically look around and get a mental picture of the people you work with.) Specifically, notice the people who are doing well in positions similar to yours. Who’s been promoted recently? Who’s been acknowledged for their efforts or sets the standard for the type of work that is appreciated or expected? What do you know about these people? What do you know about the work that they do? What does this tell you about the type of employee that is most valued? Sit on those thoughts for a moment as I provide some context for these questions.
A number of years ago, I was in the middle of discussions for me to take a position in an organization run by a friend of mine. He’s a good friend who I like a lot and I was very familiar with his organization. So, when he approached me about taking a position in his company, I was instantly interested. I saw the current status of the organization and was very familiar with his mission and vision and was immediately inundated with dozens of ideas for how I could help him reach his goals. We met a couple of times and both became excited about the possibilities. There was a job description, a salary and a start date and I was ready to sign on the dotted line. And then… an epiphany.
The night before I was to meet with my friend to officially accept the job, I suddenly had a horrifying realization: I had absolutely nothing in common with the other people he’d promoted to similar positions of leadership in his organization. In this instance, it came down to the fact that they were maintainers and I am not. This, in no way, means that I think I’m better than these people. We simply share different values. Every day, these people go to work to fight to maintain the culture they’ve established. This is what they value. I value strategy, forward momentum and always asking, “what’s next?” (Thank you, President Bartlet!*) Generally speaking, these two opposing values don’t mix well. In fact, once my eyes were opened to the reality of the situation, I also noticed that those I most closely identified with were often being let go. Ugh.
As I had this realization, my optimism and excitement was replaced with disappointment. The following day, I went to meet with my friend who was expecting me to take the job he was generously offering me, and had to disappoint him as well. I explained my realization to him. I told him that taking the job would be a disservice to the both of us as in six months he’d either be wanting to fire me or I’d be wanting to quit. In order to save our friendship and our sanity, I had to turn the job down. I think he was offended at first. (I was fairly young and foolish at that point and I’m sure I didn’t communicate my thoughts in the most gracious terms.) Fortunately, we’ve moved past it and I think we’d both agree now that it was for the best.
From that day forward, this became one of the gold standard questions I’d ask myself as I was considering new opportunities. What I realized later is that it’s not just enough to ask this question when considering a new job, but it’s imperative to continually ask this question as the values of an organization can change over time. Sometimes, you can start out working with like-minded individuals only to suddenly discover that you’re not as like-minded as you’d once been.
So, let’s go back to the beginning and the questions I had you ask in the first paragraph. Think about your answers to those questions. (Glance back up there if you need a refresher!) Now, ask yourself, “What do I have in common with these people?” Are your values aligned? Is your work ethic similar? If it is, that’s a great sign! You’ll most likely do well (or continue to do well if you’ve already been there for a while)! If it isn’t, this is a fairly significant red flag that it might be #Time2MoveOn.
By the way, this works in personal relationships too. I had, what I believed to be, a close friendship with a particular person. However, it always seemed sort of strange that I had nothing in common with any of this person’s other closest friends. I ignored it for a long time until I came face-to-face with the fact that we did not share the same values in some pretty significant areas. Had I paid more attention to my intuition in that situation, I could have adjusted my expectations, set clearer boundaries and avoided some particularly troubling and difficult experiences.
*This is a reference to The West Wing. If you didn’t know that, you should immediately go and binge watch the first four seasons on Netflix. Just ignore the character of Mandy in the first season. She’s the worst and it’s no great spoiler to say that she, thankfully, goes away never to be mentioned again.