Career limiting moves

Career limiting moves. Somewhat like “career derailers,” the term seems clear enough taken word for word, but it’s not as obvious as it sounds. A short reflection will help to get us on the same page.

I was introduced to this term rather abruptly. Well into a meeting with a business leader whom I considered critical to the success of an initiative I was leading, we were interrupted by my boss’ assistant who asked that I come to an ad hoc meeting. Reasoning that it was almost certainly about something I could justify as less urgent than my immediate situation, I said that I’d be up in a few minutes, and resumed with the other.

Less than a minute later the assistant came back, this time with a post-it note written by my boss: “You are making a career limiting move.” Get the idea?

Individual Development Plans (This apparent non sequitur is not without reason)

Typically the outcome of an assessment, Individual Development Plans (IDPs) are intended to provide guidance regarding what one can do to grow in their career. A near universal characteristic of IDPs is the tantalizing list of strengths and “development opportunities.” (aka, “weaknesses,” but this word can be alarming, so it’s frequently substituted with a term you might even appreciate, opportunities — “yay!”)

{For the 5 of you who’ve read my post “Flip it”, this is a less than admirable example of the art of redirecting attitudes.}

Although IDPs always start with strengths, we know what really matters. Right?

Maybe not.

It’s natural – near instinctive – for our eyes to go to the bad news. “Never mind the things I know I’m good at, what are the things the assessment got wrong?” (self-serving bias added for fun)

Even though development opportunities stand out in IDPs, these aren’t the things that can truly redirect your career.

It’s your strengths.

Counterintuitive as this sounds, this isn’t something I’ve simply cooked up. Yes, it’s based on years of personal experience, but also volumes of solid research demonstrating that sometimes the most unfortunate move an individual can make in their career stems from their strengths. (Proof to follow)

What about my development opportunities?”

You absolutely should pay attention to your weaknesses. After all, these are the things that some one (e.g., manager) or some thing (e.g., personality assessment) has specifically called out as needing improvement. Clearly, if “following through on commitments” is dead last on your ranking of virtues, you better quit reading this and get back to work – now.

But: When it comes to the things that matter so much that they can take you from being a star to being a meteorite in an instant, it’s those strengths.

How can my strengths get me in trouble?”

Strengths have 3 potentially insidious characteristics:

  1. They’re what we’ve always been praised for.
  2. They’re like a best friend; we want to take (use) them everywhere.
  3. They’re so easy to apply, they go virtually unnoticed to us as we use them.

That doesn’t sound so bad: “I’m good, known for, and apply these skills with virtually no effort. What’s the problem?” (note the characteristics in motion)

“Please allow me to introduce myself, …” (high thanks to Mick J.)

Example 1: Mr. Know-it-all

Without another word, you now appreciate the offensive, even destructive nature of strengths over, or misused.

We all know “Mr. Know-it-all. That guy who grew up on the other side of the country but still knows more about our hometown neighborhood than we do. Even worse than knowing EVERYTHING, they NEVER miss an opportunity to prove it. Never.

Example 2: Ms. Wicked Smart

This is the person who takes your 99% good idea and makes you feel like an IDIOT for the 1% you GOT WRONG! They can take your data and use it to both ‘beat you up’ AND solve world hunger themselves, with your idea!

“OK, we get it already.”

Not yet. There’s more that must be revealed. The risk in stopping here is that the aforementioned examples, as obvious as they are, result in a rush to awareness before fully appreciating the most destructive thing about them.

Mr. Know-it-all and Ms. Wicked Smart are completely oblivious to their offensive traits. In fact they’re proud of their knowledge and intellect, liberally applying these “strengths” more, and more, and more, … until at last, they make their “career limiting move.”

It’s not unlike an addiction. We can become so engrossed and controlled by our strengths, that we are unable to see how they may be perceived by others as near sinister. We can’t understand why we shouldn’t use the strongest skill we have – all the time. We’re unable to let go of “what got us here, but won’t take us there.” (Marshall Goldsmith)

And like an addiction, it’s very hard to amend these rights gone wrong.

Back to me (notice how I dance dangerously close to you know what)

Dismissing the first request of my boss, instead pushing ahead with my agenda, I was using what I considered to be two of my greatest strengths: my ability to make good decisions and my ability to influence others. So I overruled my boss, and figured I could explain it later. Bad call. I was making a career limiting move by proudly using my greatest strengths for the wrong reason without even knowing it. Classic.

Peace of mind

Just because I’ve laid out a few stinging examples of strengths overdone, this doesn’t mean you should abandon your “A-game”. The key, as Kenny Rogers would sing, is, “you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em…” It’s how, when and where our greatest strengths are applied that determines whether you’re ready for a big reward, or a big surprise.

So: When you think about your behavior and the feedback you’ve received over time, pay attention to your weaknesses, but be sure to reflect for a moment on your strengths. It just may save your @ss.

Psyched up?
Sign up for free updates: