Are you a misfit in the wrong job

From time to time I meet an executive who’s ended up in the wrong job. Sometimes, it’s a temporary blip and they just need to sit tight. The chessboard pieces move quickly; if they inhabit a disliked role for 12 or 18 months, it’s no big deal over a lifetime career. But, in some cases, the ‘misfit’ issue runs deeper and punching in more time is not the solution.

I’ve worked with a range of not-for-profit organizations. For a host of reasons (detailed in earlier blogs), this sector poses several unique managerial challenges (helping staff to understand that ‘not-for-profit’ ≠ ‘we are for losses’ is a useful starting point). In some cases, the CEO is the founder of the organization. In other cases, the CEO is attracted to the sector because they want to ‘give something back’ to the community. But, being happy in a job requires more than a noble cause. One CEO’s described this prosaically: “Having a great mission doesn’t trump all the other shit I have to put up with”.

The Dilemma:
Let’s assume that you are a senior executive in a not-for-profit organization. You are publicly identified with the goals of the organization. You’ve spent a lot of time fundraising, selling the message externally. But you are ‘unfulfilled’ or secretly have a grá for some other line of work. Yet, you’ve become so identified with the organization that you feel stuck, almost as if your personality and your role have morphed into the same thing. I am personally aware of two founders of not-for-profit organizations who suffered mental breakdowns as a result of being caught in this specific dilemma (one recently went public in an autobiography which described months when she literally could not get out of bed). They both wanted to move on but felt trapped.

Medical Neighbours:
Feeling stuck in a rut is not exclusive to not-for-profit organisations. Many years ago, I worked in a medium-sized country town. In a new housing development, people made a lot of effort to get to know their neighbours. 3 of the guys on the estate were Doctors. When we’d meet, 2 of them would talk about patients, medicine and healthcare. The other one would invariably swing the conversation around to computers (his key interest). At some earlier point that guy, perhaps the brightest boy in his class, got ‘pushed’ into studying medicine and became a GP because of his own or his family’s need to secure a high status occupation. As about 50% of a GP’s role is actually counseling, this intelligent but introverted, shy man, ended up in a completely unsuitable job with no obvious exit strategy. He should have moved on but felt trapped.

Dublin Party:
Roll the clock forward 20 years and I’m at a party in Dublin, conducting a Bacardi Summit i.e. ‘solving the problems of the world at 2 am’. A woman I’d never met before told me that her partner was hugely committed to a house renovation project in Co. Clare. Restoring its original features had become his life’s work. Somewhat envious, I made a range of excuses about why I couldn’t do something similar, pleading ‘busyness’ (forgetting to mention the small matter of a complete absence of D.I.Y. skills). Then the lady said: “You don’t have your life sorted, do you?” In the cold light of day, that statement seems smart-assed, a put-down. But it was simply a question and a solid one at that, something that we all need to answer. Do you have your life sorted?

The Fear:
Many executives worry about leaving an organization where they’ve huge service on the clock or have made a significant personal commitment. They ask: “what will happen to the organization if I move on?”  As pushback, I use the following metaphor: I tell them that the impact of their resignation will be like taking their hand out of a bucket of water and looking back in to see the space they’ve left behind!

Suit Yourself:
When it comes to deciding the best job for you, just suit yourself. Do everyone a favour and chase down a role that you really want. For sure, the announcement that you are going will be a 5 minute conversation piece, a storm in a thimble. Then people will quickly revert to worrying about their own lives as you get on with yours. All other things being equal (pensions, job security etc), the right time to leave your job is when you stop enjoying it.