Learning to Choose Better

As I was writing about last week, early in my career I had a hiring team that tried to fit me into their company culture, ignoring the facts and their needs. It ended in a terrible result. The hiring managers set us all up for failure by ignoring the culture of the company and by setting expectations that they couldn’t meet. Years later, having worked with a wide diversity of people and companies who have similar stories, I find that while the company carries most of the responsibility when deciding on a cultural fit, the potential employee must also be clear about what they want from their new workplace. When I reflect back on this experience, read reports and hear stories from others, it becomes clear that we commonly do not know how to choose the right workplace early in our careers.

I’ll use an example of a client of mine from years ago in San Francisco who has a similar story to many people. Ben graduated with his masters degree in Political Science from a prestigious California University. After graduation, he joined a start up media platform doing marketing. The media platform was young, dynamic, fun and sexy. This company was one of those start up darlings that quickly became a household name and was featured for their innovation and rapid customer acquisition. It was a highly desirable place to work as a recent graduate Ben had all the bragging rights he could ask for. He worked with great minds in a colourful and fun environment and was given the room to push the boundaries of his creative ideas.

After the first year of working there Ben found he always felt tired. He socialised less as he sought more time at home with his wife to relax and turn off the world. He was also a talented musician but stoped performing and rarely going to band practice. This went on for a couple more years until his wife became pregnant. With the expectation of a family, Ben took a different view of his life and what he wanted for the future. Did he want to be so tired all the time? Could he imagine being even more tired when the baby came? He knew he needed to change jobs but had gotten drawn in by the excitement and bright culture of his company.

Ben started interviewing and got an offer from a well established financial tech company with several successful products, strongly developed values, management and structure. The company began as a groundbreaking startup and had grown to be much more successful than his media platform company. The new company was able to offer him he same level of accolades and awards. However, Ben was hesitant as to wether or not this was a good move for him. His commute would be a little longer, his manager was older and the office had more of a corporate feeling. It just wasn’t as sexy as his current company. He had considered a career path that was more oriented towards agency advertising work and fresh marketing projects. He worried that it wouldn’t be as creative and that his CV would be less appealing.

He and I had a series of conversations about his working style, career goals and where he found his current work to be the most exhausting. We focused on addressing who he was as a person as well as the risk versus the rewards of taking this new role. After serious consideration he decided to take the job.

It was a great choice for him and he saw the benefits right away. In this new role Ben found he had more energy, felt happier and returned to music. Even with the addition of a new baby and the extended commute he was actually accomplishing more things at home and had created a better work life balance for him and his wife. It wasn’t just his personal life that benefited; at this new company Ben was able to work quietly in a focused and organised way that allowed for him to better creative innovative ideas. He created a positive energy loop. He didn’t have to overexert himself at work — so he had more to offer at home — which in turn gave him more energy and creativity at the office.

The key was that Ben needed a company culture that better suited him. His new company was more structured, had a closed office plan, there was less politics among the management team and the roadmap and product development goals were well organized. His personality was quieter and more thoughtful, needing the room to focus on his projects and less time devoted to meetings and socialising with colleagues. The previous culture was more focused on social interaction and connection through engaged playful behaviour. While Ben preferred to bond over celebrating excellent team work and accomplishments. To some this is ideal, to others stifling.

Fresh From School

As we finish our studies and begin to interview and work in internships most of us don’t have the the tools to understand what is our Dream Job or even the luxury of it landing in our laps. We take our first job after university for a complex set of reasons. It’s time for us to start our independent lives, begin developing our careers and paying off our student loans. It is a secondary consideration to have our job based on personal interests, ideal working place, best salary and the amazing boss as a mentor.

A recent report gave some interesting information regarding the situation for university graduates. Germany finds that 93% of grads find work in their area of study but only 43% choose the area of study from a passion.

For the US, there is less cultural emphasis on education and the relatedness to their jobs. We see there that only 65% of graduates are working in a field of study related to their major but 69% choose to study from a passion.

Over half of both German and American graduates feel underemployed

While how each side engages in their careers and university choices are clearly culturally different, the one thing they had in common was that over half of both German and American graduates felt underemployed. The reasons why we choose our major and how we pick our first jobs after graduating are clearly mixed and have yet to be studied with deep clarity, but we do know that more than half of us feel dissatisfied with our choice.

This is not a shocking number considering how we are not well prepared at the early ages in which we need to pick and choose our path for the rest of our lives. The German education system requires typical students as early as 10 years old to determine their future education and consequently their career path. While the typical American students are allowed to change their educational direction and university major as late as 20 years old. This cultural and educational difference gives Americans much more room to change their minds and career paths. According to the American Bureau of Labor Statistics the average American will change jobs 11 times by the age of 45.

Regardless at which country we look at, the common thread is that neither side have an emphasis on understanding how their personal development and needs will reflect on their career choices. Think about it, how many different jobs have you fantasied about in your life?

Knowing Ourselves

Reading job postings, specifically in the advertising and tech space, it is nearly standard to come across a section where the company talks about its offerings and ‘culture’ which include a list of the fun and cool things they offer, like candy walls, beer and games. Then in contrast, think about a job posting that describes the values of the organisation, the leading thinkers that they have working there and the depth of the projects they have. One sounds like a playground and one sounds like a lab.

So we have a choice, do we work better in a playground or in a lab? What drives your creativity and productivity? Do you work better in a large group of people in an uniquely decorated office, bouncing ideas off each other while drinking Club Mate? Or do you appreciate being in a subtle comfortable room where the minds are all humming in unison on solving that complicated issue in a collective quiet. Do you find it stimulating to work in an environment where every day brings a new set of shifting goals and priorities that has the possibility to be the next most innovative idea, that may or may not make it to the marketplace? Or do you like to work in a way that allows for you to consistently and deeply work towards solving an interesting and complicated project that then will be released to the world in a well functioning form?

It is also important to reflect not just on your personal working style but also your personal values. For instance, you’re faced with a client who needs a solution fast. They are eager to have the project running for the public within a week. As an expert in your field, you know that the project cannot be done with high quality in a week. Would you rather have the project done well above all else and tell the client they need to wait? Or do you find it important to meet the clients needs and work with them to compromise on the quality of the first release until you can do a better second version?

These things above are all dictated by the company culture and values. It is important to reflect on your own personality and values to be able to ask the right questions from multiple managers to determine what kind of environment they are truly offering aside from the generic job posting.

Keeping a Clear Head

A good manager cannot protect us from a bad company culture but a good company culture can protect us from a bad manager.

Going into interviews we are often excited, nervous, anxious and even feeling a sense of privilege at being chosen to interview. During these interviews we hear about the work, our colleagues and the company culture. It is important to understand the ways that the company’s management reflects on creating a workplace. Specifically, the values and how they drive the development processes and how the organisation runs. However, the truth is that bosses are subjective with their interpretation of company culture and there is often mixed messages and inconsistency. A boss might try to create a niche within the company that suits their personal idea of culture or the company might push their desire for creating culture and overrun the management’s autonomy.

Keep a clear head, try to be pragmatic about why you are feeling excited about the company. Try to translate your intuition to facts to better determine what you are feeling. It’s hard to not get swept up in the fun and excitement with the prospect of a new job and team. Many companies also have a very appealing and attractive marketing program to get you in the door. Be aware of the signs around you, what crossed messages or hidden issues can you sense.

Be honest with yourself, reflect on what you learned from the interviews and how it matches in relation to you. Are the managers consistent in their information? Do you have a strong idea of what is expected of you from the culture and the managers both? Evaluate how you want to engage with other people and what kind of environment you work well in. Look at your future career goals, does your work and your prospective employer match who you really are?

Making Better Choices

Why we choose work and what we learn from it is still something of a mystery. Ben found himself at a crossroads when he was trying to decide on his next steps. He had been thinking about why he was so tired and unhappy at his desirable and sexy company after university but the catalyst of his wife’s pregnancy pushed him to work with me to evaluate his choices and to make the next best steps. While catalysts and career coaches are great at helping us to make changes, we can all benefit from self reflection as we continue to develop our careers and guiding our best moves forward. Using this information to then choose the right job, boss and company culture is the smartest thing we can do to find joy in our work.

For support in finding out your personal working style and coaching about how to work towards your career goals, email me at: arela@featuredpeople.com

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