How to Make the Shift

How to Make the Shift

There are a lot of metaphors for career progress and career setbacks. In my lectures, I like comparing managing your career to being a new driver in a stick shift car. The shifting is the tough part. Since most careers have only a few major changes, none of us ever gets really good at shifting gears.

Invincible executives do not necessarily shift smoothly, but they accomplish their shifts successfully. Here is how they seem to do it. First, they sense when it is time to make a major career shift. They know when they cannot sustain their current momentum in the job that they have now. Indeed, there will likely be two or three times in your career when you sense that you are running out of room to operate in the current gear. You have to be attuned enough to what is going on around you in your organization to know when you are in that situation (we'll discuss how to do that a little later). When you determine that you are at the limit of the current position that you are in, you have two options. One, you can hit the brakes so that you can continue in your current gear. That is the equivalent of resigning yourself to a plateau in your career—deciding that there are more important things in life than progressing professionally. That is fine, but it means never becoming the invincible executive. You then become focused on protecting what you have.

Your other choice is to try to work the clutch to shift into the next higher level. That brief period of time when you are at the end of the capability of your current gear and are contemplating how and when to use the clutch is the time when career setbacks are most likely. You might go into overdrive; you might grind the gears; you might have a halting, sputtering transition into the next gear.

For example, you may not get the promotion that you wanted. You are all revved up; the organization isn't taking advantage of the RPMs that you are offering. It can be devastating. Or you may grind the gears a little as you move to a new job—as occurred with Ashcroft. You may not time the switch perfectly, which can mean a period of unemployment or a tense situation on the job. When you are grinding, it is an awful feeling of being neither here nor there, and suffering for it.

There may be economic or corporate circumstances beyond your control that change the direction of your career. For example, a software executive told me about the time he decided to move to a new company and immediately learned that the company had been unable to raise the money it expected to raise to continue its start-up operation. Within two weeks of his starting on the job, it was unclear if the company would have the cash to survive. The executive saw this setback as an opportunity. He jumped right into the middle of the matter and used his credibility with lenders to assist the company in finding new sources of financing. He was CEO two years later, and the company is still doing well.

When invincible executives make difficult gear shifts, they are driven by their commitment to change to a higher gear rather than slow down. That thought allows them to suppress unproductive, even self-destructive, conduct. The only option is to consider the pending or actual setback as an opportunity to improve the situation. Don't try just to hold on to what you have; look for the way to move ahead.

Knowing When to Shift

What you cannot allow to happen in the process is what happens to so many first-time drivers of stick shift cars—failure to make the shift. During a tough transition to a higher gear, the opportunity to make the proper adjustments to get into the higher gear lasts for a very brief period of time. The key, therefore, to avoiding the catastrophe is remaining coolheaded and thinking quickly. Consequently, you cannot let your emotions control the situation. Sadness, madness, frustration, and self-pity will all but ensure that you end up on the side of the road calling Triple A. Rather, you have to look at the setback simply as notice of an opportunity to improve and a challenge to your character to remain levelheaded enough to find the opportunity that will in fact present itself.

Being unemotional does not, therefore, mean being laid-back. In the examples above, both Steve and the attorney general moved very rapidly and with a sense of urgency. As Joe Ryan, executive vice president of Marriott, says, you must "deal with crisis quickly" or the situation will soon be out of your control. He recommends that you have a forty-eight-hour plan when a crisis hits your company or your career. You address the crisis with a solid plan of action within forty-eight hours—at the expense of everything else in your life for that brief period of time when you are switching gears. Invincible executives do not take sabbaticals to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. When you are in that state of limbo between gears, therefore, remember: (1) you will improve your situation; and (2) you are going to do it now.

Two-thirds of the invincible executives with whom I discussed the issue can point to a time in their careers when a setback led to a new and better path. Your job is to keep your emotions in check and find those opportunities. You will be amazed at how often better situations arise out of setbacks in a current position that has run its course. There is almost a sort of magic to the timing of it all, many invincible executives have said and proven.