August 09,2021 Leadership Development

Your Career or Identity

Your Career or Identity

Your Career or Identity

Your Career or Identity

I consulted recently with a highly successful client I’ll call Jane who had changed jobs and then found themselves in a career crisis. She had worked for a government agency for fifteen years and then moved to a public company fourteen months ago. Jane’s career calamity began when they no longer saw themselves as competent, valuable, or important. Her career was the main part of their identity, and their struggle in the office set off a chain reaction, igniting a gripping depression that subsequently took over her life.

Let me give a little more backstory, though. Jane started with her government agency during an internship that later led to her first job. After four years, Jane’s potential was identified as she received her first promotion to manage a small team. Two years later, she was promoted to a director role, one of the youngest to reach this position before turning thirty. She continued to grow, gaining a specialized master’s degree and making a name for themselves nationally.

After nine years in the director role, Jane had achieved mastery. She had also stagnated. While still considered early in her career, she also foresaw that she would have to wait another nine years for the next leadership retirement that would allow her to make the next career jump.

Reaching Early Career Retirement

Experiencing delayed movement and a lack of challenge in her role, Jane joked that she’d retired at the age of thirty-six. Inevitably, she started shopping for new jobs. As fifteen years had passed since she was a free agent, the process and new technologies dazzled her. It wasn’t long before three potential suitors called, attempting to woo her into their respective organizations.

Swept away by the attention, Jane selected a sizably larger offer with the ability to grow their career more than they thought possible. This move to the public sector brought a 42% pay increase with the freedom and independence of an expert based working model. Finally, Jane envisioned that she would be able to advance fast and far, with a shot at becoming an executive within a few years.

The new role had a two-week honeymoon as Jane navigated parking, the shift from an office to a touchdown station, and numerous introductions. During this period, the brain goes into overdrive as it absorbs reams of new data and pushes learning to the max. She struggled with new terminologies, cultural norms, and the work itself. She was now simply an individual contributor, no longer a manager of people. Her role was to now manage partner relationships, which was code for governing contracts. These contracts were formed around tribal knowledge, and they had no backstory notes and little perspective.

Struggling to Assimilate

Coming to me, she felt unable to assimilate into her new team. She was out of her environment and constantly feeling uncomfortable. Struggling with the new culture, Jane felt that she had been reduced to an executive assistant, simply scheduling meetings and distributing minutes. Beyond their own perception of failing in the new role, she was also struggling with not being important anymore. She no longer was a decision maker, her advice was no longer sought, and they were not included in private management conversations.

After the first six months, her first inclination was to look for new opportunities and jump ship. She couldn’t let go of the past, and ego was keeping her from moving forward. Jane’s old job title had become her identity. Now that the lessened job title, she had lost her identity.

After many hard nights of reflection, she realized that they had never truly committed and given the new organization a chance. After a few task failures combined with navigating cultural ambiguities, her mind chose flight over fight. She also realized that her career could undergo a rebirth.

Achieving a Career Rebirth

She came to accept that she could not give up and could only leave this role after she proved that she could succeed in it. At first, Jane achieved the small victory of simply revising a new contract, which drove higher engagement. Small victories began to pile up, which started the flywheel of success. It later peaked with the negotiation of a new partner agreement. Jane could finally look upon herself as a success in her role. She now had their own permission to leave but opted to stay instead.

By letting go of her past baggage, accomplishments, and failures, Jane was able to move forward. The recognition that her identity was much more than her job title allowed these baby steps to take place. This eventually led to competence, excellence, and then promotion, getting her career back on track.


What Happens When Your Career Becomes Your Whole Identity

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