Why climate matters when you make a career transition

Too often the focus of a career transition is where the best pay or highest stature can be found, but former Sotera CEO and George Mason professor John Hillen has found that the better chances of success come when you focus on culture and mission.

This is the third column in a monthly series on strategy and leadership issues in the government contracting and technology industry.  Dr. John Hillen is the executive in residence and professor of practice at George Mason University’s School of Business, where he teaches leadership and strategy.

Because I did my own transition from the military and government to the private sector early in my career, over the years I have often been asked to share my thoughts with senior military or government officials who are doing that transition later in their career.

After scores of these conversations with officials from 4-star flag officers on down, I began to realize that most people (including me) had been thinking through career transitions the wrong way.

In essence, we were too focused on moving for the specifics of what we would do in a new position – like looking for a house with some very exact specifications. Instead, what I came to realize when I looked across the careers of scores of successful executives was that those who moved for the climate first, and made much less important their desire for the ideal “spec house,” ended up being more professionally fulfilled……and successful.

And while what I came to understand that this applied especially to those transitioning from the military or government, it was relevant and helpful to most everyone I spoke with, even entry level professionals.

Let me explain this in the context of a typical conversation with a retiring senior military officer.  They most often show up to our chat incredibly well prepared for the conversation, having thought through their post-military life in a systematic and orderly way – and many times with help from career transition counselors and/or executive recruiters.

I ask them where their initial thoughts are and they often times pull out a list – what I’ve come to call their career transition hostage demands – or, not to mix my metaphors – the specs on their spec house. The amount of money they need to make in the new role, the level of title they should have, the number of people that should report to them, where they should be in the pecking order, the scope of responsibilities that would be in keeping with the stature of the position they are thinking, etc.

All very reasonable considerations that any professional has to weigh in managing one’s career – and many drawn directly from the clear and rigid hierarchy of the military or government. But, is this useful a starting place for thinking through a career transition?

I’ll usually ask them to turn their list over and put it face down on the table for now. And then just answer a few questions that will give some insight about who they are and what kind of professional environment might be most rewarding for them.

I’ll ask them: What kind of organization do they thrive in? Large, medium, or small? And how did they see how institutional size might matter in an organization and what did that mean to them?  Do they feel most comfortable in more controlled and well-structured environments or do they thrive in settings that are a little more free-form and regularly confronted with ambiguity around which the enterprise must adapt to in constantly changing ways? Do they find bureaucracy comforting and necessary for order, or do they bristle at its inevitable corralling of individual initiative? Or are they in between and if so, where in between and why?

What styles of leadership do they find productive and inspiring – both that they exhibit themselves as a leader and that they want to work under?  Do they prefer leadership styles that might reinforce affiliation and participation and “buy in” at the expense of efficiency and agility?  Do they like to work and lead in a toss-the-new-guy-in-the-deep-end-of-the-pool environment or do they prefer a setting more characterized by coaching and development even if it means a slower pace of career development and achievement?

Who are the kind of people they want to work around day in, and day out?  Most research shows that the 7-10 principle people that professionals touch every day in their job and their immediate supervisor make up the vast majority of the feelings they have about whether they like where they work…or not. 

Do they like to be around creative people?  Well-organized and regimented people?  Do they flourish around people who make their decisions guided by their expertise and logic - many engineers and technologists for instance?  Or perhaps market-facing executives who are driven by opportunity – such as sales professionals?  Do they like to work around people who march to their own drummer?  Or teams who seek to build consensus and hold the harmony of the team in as high a regard as the financial or other goals of the organization?

What facet of the achievements of an economic enterprise really turns them on?  It is the solving of a customer problem?  Is it the technical innovation of a product?  Is it the competitive dynamics of the marketplace?  The developing of people within the organization?  The sense of being on a great team?  Killing it financially?  What really gives them a sense of self-actualization about the many purposes of an organization?

This kind of dialogue often produces an ah ha moment for the transitionee. Having led different kinds of organizations in their career, they are of course aware that different units even within the same broader enterprise can have vastly different cultures.  The military even invented the word “command climate” to capture some of the varying values, systems of belief, patterns of behavior, incentive structures, and preferred leadership styles that make up different kinds of institutional cultures. 

But, even so, career military and government officials have not often had the chance to always choose the climate in which they want to work.  And even if they had the chance to build a climate of their own making, their tenure was short before they rotated and they most often didn’t get to pick their own people with the freedom they can in the corporate world.  The fact that they now can choose the climate in which they might thrive is a very liberating….and sometimes intimidating moment.

A dialogue like this often gives me a sense of who they are, not just what they can do or what material gains or hierarchical status they want out of their new professional life.

The other stuff matters, of course, but looking at transition first through the lens of the kind of place one might be happiest in, the kinds of people one really enjoys being around, and the type of achievement that really motivates one deep inside can clarify choices more than status or salary or title.  It might, for instance, motivate a retiring 2-star general to be the chief operating officer of a small tech firm that needs solid operational leadership rather than folding into the comfortable hierarchy of a Fortune 100 conglomerate. 

Finally, I might introduce the transitioning executive to a Venn diagram used by my partner Dr. Mark Nevins.  In it, there are three bubbles. What one is truly good at doing, what one truly likes to do, and what an organization will pay one to do.

It is amazing to me how many successful executives will admit that they made much of their career NOT anywhere in the overlapping bits of that Venn diagram.   Many have focused too much on what they can get paid to do, rather than doing something at which they truly excel or enjoy, or in a place where they truly feel they fit.

To me, the most important factor of a career transition is moving to an organization where one will be happy – professionally fulfilled.  The aspect of the institutional mission on which they work is gratifying every day.  The culture and size of the organization are a fit with their personality and leadership style.  The colleagues around whom they work motivate them day in and day out.  Even if the only position open in that matching organization is not exactly what they were hoping for in terms of title and status – they may want to take it.

Odds are if the “fit” is there, they will be happy and productive.  Happy and productive executives move ahead quickly in their careers – and get the material benefits they sought over time anyway. 

My final bit of advice for them is to consider moving for the climate….and the culture and the mission.  And then, over time, they’ll be able to build their “spec house” in a place where it fits them best.