Strategically thinking through a career concern

Instead of reacting impulsively to a frustrating job issue, step back and develop a plan to address it.
By Sandra Wiley

In a recent coaching conversation, a rising star told me about her frustration over the opinion of supervisors that her performance was poor.

No one spoke to her directly about problems with her performance, yet she found herself being removed from projects, ignored when she made suggestions, and generally being demoted on client work. In other words, she felt she was being pushed to the side. After listening to some of her stories, I agreed that she was being pushed aside.

Neither of us knew why, so I asked her to talk about the process she had for thinking strategically about what was happening.   

She struggled, but together we decided she did not understand what strategic thinking is, nor did she know how to gain the skill. I shared techniques that might help her seek first to understand, and then develop a strategic way to turn her challenge into an opportunity. Here are the things we discussed:

Identify, listen, and learn from a mentor. I was her outside mentor; she needed an internal advocate in the firm who could provide informed feedback about her performance. Unless you have a person willing to give you an honest assessment of how management views your performance, you can miss out on chances for career growth. 

Create quiet time to think. To think about strategic solutions, you have to find time to stop what you are doing and reflect. This rising star was busy. She rarely had time to contemplate what was happening in her life, and therefore did not notice the conversations and actions of others around her. Her motto was head down—do the work. Unfortunately, when you do that all the time, you miss warning signs about what is happening in your organization and in your career. 

Get curious about others. This was hard for my mentee to understand at first. She wanted to make the "problem" all about her. In reality, unless she stopped to find out what made others in the organization concerned, unhappy, or just plain frustrated, there was no way for her to connect those issues to her performance and actions. She needed to learn to get curious about others in the firm, particularly the leaders, and build a strong relationship with them. Transparency and trust don't just happen; they are an outcome of ongoing communication and understanding. 

Connect with people who know more than you do. Strategic thinking comes from increasing your knowledge. Growing your network of interesting people is essential to future success. It is a step out of the comfort zone at times, but it is imperative that you find people who have the skills that you need to improve upon. Connect with them to learn what they do and how they do it. If you are aligning yourself with people who don't teach, push and challenge you, finding new connections might be in order. 

Armed with the items above, my rising star developed four action items:

  1. She would ask a partner to be her mentor. Since he knew her well, she would ask him: What should I keep doing because I do it well? What should I stop doing, because it is getting in the way of my career goals? What should I start doing that will help me get back on track?
  2. She committed to setting aside 15 minutes each morning to writing down three things she was grateful for, three things that had gone well the day before, and three things she intended to accomplish that day. 
  3. She made a goal to eat lunch with a different manager every other week. This was her peer group, and she recognized that she had not been building relationships with them.
  4. Since she had been thinking about joining a local book club with other professionals, she determined this was the right time to expand her network. She could learn more and find other professionals who could expand her network all at the same time.

Sandra Wiley is a senior consultant at Boomer Consulting in Manhattan, Kan., and is a speaker on topics such as team building, talent development, and performance improvement.

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