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Employment Career Feature

Advice on Handling Career Problems

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When after fifteen years as a management professor I moved full time into university administration as a vice president, I was worried that my new subordinates would read my textbooks and expect me to practice what I had preached. Therefore, at my first departmental meeting I told my assembled staff of 120 that I encouraged them all to buy my books, but under no circumstances should they read them!

The gap between normative theory and management practice is wide. No one can be as good as the books suggest. Things are just too uncontrollable. You should be less spoiled than I was. Nonetheless, life at work will be a bit different than you expect: less structured and more ambiguous, less rational and more emotional, less controllable and more insistent, less unethical but more demanding of courage. Let me draw out what I think are the most important axioms to keep in mind as you begin your career.

  • Your career is important. You may accept the likelihood of some early dissatisfaction, but don't think that you can successfully treat your job as merely a vehicle to find life's satisfactions elsewhere. Unhappiness on the job will spill over into your personal life, even corrupting a happy family. So don't be afraid to change jobs and don't feel guilty about it.

  • But it is better to move earlier and later rather than in the middle. The period from your late twenties to early forties should include a solid eight to twelve years with one organization, demonstrating your ability to make a valuable contribution in a measurable way.

  • Your career may be important, but it is not your whole being. No career failure should be allowed to touch the inner self that defines your basic integrity. You are more important than your career. Al-ways maintain some distance between yourself and whatever you do to make a living.

  • Involve your family in your job and career. Balancing career and home needs is essential in the long run, and it will be easier to maintain to the extent that family members understand the realities of your duties.

  • Be honest with yourself. All people experience career setbacks. Those who bounce back and those who don't are equally ambitious and hard working. What distinguishes those who are defeated by failure is defensiveness, trying to conceal their mistakes or blaming them on others. Those who recover admit publicly and to themselves that they erred and then try to correct the causes.

  • To do well requires you to exercise power. Don't shrink from acquiring and using power because you don't want to "hurt" people. Yes, you will undoubtedly hurt someone while leading any significant change, but accepting responsibility (and some "guilt" feelings) is essential to even the most idealistic and altruistic leadership.

You can't be all things to all people. Effective time managers try to overcome role overload and stress by experimenting with their environment-projecting themselves ahead in time, ignoring certain demands, downplaying more urgent trivia, focusing on more important objectives, and attempting to renegotiate with their demanders.

  • Long-term time management means defining what objectives are less and more deferrable, and fighting for more time to invest in those more deferrable, less explicitly cued, and more important but ambiguous objectives like adaptation and revitalization.

  • Your courage will be especially tested in situations where your superior has assigned you a task which holds promise of making you a star, but on which he or she has only ambiguously defined your authority. You must find clever ways to precipitate a clarification of the delegation terms.

  • Don't be overly concerned with prestige or status symbols like title, office size, and furnishings. What counts is that you are performing interesting tasks that provide opportunities for you to demonstrate a contribution to the organization's central objectives-and that you find and commit to such a situation by your late twenties/early thirties.

  • Remember that you are not likely to influence others effectively if you rely primarily on "pulling rank" using your positional authority. Effective power grows out of your expertise, your personal relationships, and your judicious willingness to represent your subordinates' interests upward.

  • Recognize that "knowledge" may be "power" but that overly analytical, achievement-oriented staff professionals often neglect investing sufficient time in developing the interpersonal skills necessary to be an effective manager.

  • Finding a star mentor is terrific, but being a protégé also carries certain responsibilities. Don't be seduced by the mentor who wants to be a "father" dominating all aspects of your career in return for your loyal passivity. On the other hand, don't be afraid to make commitments to those whose values and organizational dreams you share.

  • Loyalty is dead only if you define it as blind acceptance of whatever the organization hands you. But loyalty is alive and essential in other forms-especially giving honest effort, protecting your superior, and communicating upward truthfully.

  • In no area is naiveté more dangerous than in blowing the whistle on an organizational activity with which you disagree. Most of all, it should not be an emotional outburst, but a conscience-driven, deeply thought-out plan of action.

  • Courage is required to dissent from unethical but popular behavior. Resignation is sometimes the proper course. Nonetheless, staying and changing group or organizational behavior usually requires even more courage-and is to be even more admired.

  • "Being different" in race, gender, or ethnicity can be tough in any group or organization, but effective minority managers find ways to minimize the threat that they present to the majority. Sure it is unfair to burden additionally such minority managers with adjusting their own behavior, but until all of us become more skilled at valuing differences, the onus will be on the minority person to present himself or herself as in the mainstream.

  • The acid test of managerial competence is the ability to lead an un-popular change effort even when your authority to do so is unclear. Waiting until you are certain you have all the necessary power is a recipe for paralysis. Such change agent-managers are particularly courageous in recognizing that real change is impossible without causing some stress among the people affected--"no pain, no gain."

  • Management and leadership are not mutually exclusive, but most of the time being a manager involves less heroic initiatives than being a leader manifests. Yet, I doubt that one can be an effective leader without being an effective manager, at least not in the corporate world. Becoming a leader, however, particularly requires great clarity of purpose, a focus on a relatively short list of initiatives, and courage to push for an outcome you think is needed even if unpopular.

  • Effective leader-managers in the long run are "friendly" with their work colleagues and subordinates but don't depend on them for "friendship" or verification of self-worth. Look for affirmation of your inherent value from yourself and from families and non-job friends, not from those who might be adversely affected by your valid but necessary tough decisions.

  • "Time happeneth to us all." All too soon, we start being viewed as middle-aged by our organizations. Those who handle this mid-life transition well are those who ensure that they are performing activities that they truly value and enjoy, while in small ways they demonstrate the discipline and courage to give up things which they do well in order to confront unknown demands and develop new skills, especially in nurturing the performance of creative juniors.

Optimism and a lack of cynicism are great allies in handling all of these career and life challenges. Of course one can't be a naive, Pollyanna type oblivious to the world's meanness and unethicalness. Nonetheless, believing that you have a good shot at handling your affairs sensitively and ethically will go a long way toward assisting your managerial success.
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