This site explores scenarios of corporate dysfunction that can derail your career. The Navigator provides guidance of how to advance your career despite these obstacles.

How to Win in the No-Win Job

"The Door"

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You have reached a conclusion that you are in a no-win job.  Your suspicions began soon after you took a new position that had such great promise.  At first you tried to ignore your predecessor’s meticulous but half-finished project plans that were jammed in the top right drawer of your office.   Vaguely disturbing was the use of red crayon on post-it notes that fell behind the bookcase.  You felt queasy when you discovered a half-eaten sandwich and a lone shoe in your office coat closet.  Who leaves with only one shoe?   You conclude that something monstrous has consumed those before you, but what?  If you are seeking hard-won wisdom by those who have concluded that they are in a no-win situation and still managed to squeeze every ounce of opportunity out of it, then tighten your seat belts and read on.  

Assess Your Predicament  

If you are feeling unique in your current predicament, you may take some dark comfort in the results of a 2017 Gallup survey about which Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton comments “…many people in the world hate their job …Only 15% of the world’s one billion full-time workers are engaged at work. It is significantly better in the U.S., at around 30% engaged, but this still means that roughly 70% of American workers aren’t engaged.”   The gist of this data which included 160 countries and 1 billion full time workers is that it is hard to obtain a feeling of achievement at work.   The ambiguity and conflict found in large and complex organizations will likely add to a feeling of failure.  Perhaps your predecessor wasn’t so incompetent after all.  Even highly experienced employees can meet their match with these confounding obstacles:

  • A grossly incompetent or demeaning boss
  • A lack of senior sponsorship
  • Political rivalry between senior stakeholders
  • Cultural resistance to change
  • M&A activity /restructuring

The Navigator has held enough high visibility roles to have experienced all of the above.  Early indications of trouble could include a kind of silence that pervades the organization, a sign of a troubled culture.  Or a difficult internal client complains to you about your predecessor, although other internal clients had no issue with her – a signal that this client has another axe to grind.  Or the reporting structure and lines of communication are ambiguous – a clue that something wicked this way comes.

So now that you have all the signs and portents of an eroding situation, what can you do to make the most of it?

Leadership Competencies – The Art of Influence 

If you want to succeed in a corporate environment you will need to abandon the notion that the only path to success is the ability to control a situation.  Instead, learn how to influence a situation for your desired outcome.  How can you learn the art of influence? Social scientists have assembled entire collections of leadership competencies to help you.    The Career Architect® Development Planner by Michael M. Lombardo & Robert W. Eichinger published by Korn/Ferry International is an exhaustive but eloquent compilation of leadership skills with the goal of influencing your environment.  This body of work recognizes that there is always a way to leverage a situation to your advantage provided you focus your energies on what you can do rather than what others should do.  Consider the following quote from the book:

“All of us will find ourselves in bad situations from time to time. Good intentions gone bad. Impossible tasks and goals. Hopeless projects. Even though you probably can’t perform well, the key is to at least take away some lessons and insights. How did things get to be this way? What factors led to the impasse? How can you make the best of a bad situation? How can you neutralize the negative elements? How can you get the most out of yourself and your staff under the chilling situation? What can you salvage? How can you use coping strategies to minimize the negatives? How can you avoid these situations going forward? ….” .

The development planner is empowering. You can use it immediately to identify your weaknesses and put together a development plan.  You don’t need to rely on your corporate training department to deliver an overwrought program.  (The Navigator abhors the passivity assumed by employees ‘waiting’ to be trained. Get out there and learn things on your own with the same drive as you would research a vacation or a new car). Simply peruse the alphabetized list of 67 competencies, obtain examples of skilled and unskilled behaviors to get an idea of where you fall into the continuum, and act on improvement suggestions.

To understand the layout of the planner, consider the example of competency # 40, “Dealing with Paradox”, a common boondoggle that can cause the unskilled to crash.  The planner divides behaviors under each competency into three areas:  Unskilled, Skilled, and Overused Skill along with the possible underlying causes of the behaviors.  Below you will find an excerpt:

Unskilled

  • Not very flexible
  • Can’t shift gears readily

Skilled

  • Can act in ways that seem contradictory
  • Is very flexible and adaptable when facing tough calls

Overused Skill

  • May be seen as two-faced or wishy-washy
  • May change too easily from one style or mode to another

Some Causes

  • Abdicate or freeze when situations change quickly
  • Rigid about values and beliefs

All of the above can help you better understand yourself, but the power of the planner is the “remedies” section below each competency.  There are many introspective suggestions, such as identifying your triggers in stressful situations as well as on-the-job assignments that allow you to go out of your comfort zone with a goal for improvement.   You can put together your own short and long-term development plans using these remedies.

Avoid the “No Win” Job in the First Place

Of course, no one wants to deliberately enter into a job with inherent major obstacles.  Find out what you are getting yourself into before accepting a position. Once the hiring manager has expressed serious interest in your candidacy, consider asking the following:

  • Is this role valued by senior management?
  • What is the reputation of the department / division?
  • What is the dynamic of the team, peers, and direct reports?
  • What should I know about your style of management? What are things that you find admirable in a person filling this role?  What are things that are off-putting to you?
  • Are there any major restructuring plans or M&A activity that is possible in the next 18 months?
  • What has been the annual budget for this function?
  • Tell me about my predecessor. What is the history of this role?
  • What are the measurable objectives for this role within a year, within 3 years? (if the answer is the dreaded “to provide value” – this is a red flag. The hiring manager will likely not provide any direction to you after you assume the role)
  • Tell me about my future stakeholders and internal clients

As you take inventory of your options in your current role, resist succumbing to a no-win conclusion.  You alone can decide on the lens through which you will view the risks and opportunities of the corporate environment.  You can join many others who have learned to navigate the tough times with powerful influencing abilities.  You can cautiously explore new situations with your eyes open because you have learned valuable lessons about yourself and others in the workplace.  There is no doubt that successes will enhance your career.  But there is also opportunity in failures. Good hiring managers want to see that your answers to their questions have complexity and depth which will become apparent when you’ve shared how well you navigated the dysfunction of the corporate roller coaster.

the NavigatorHow to Win in the No-Win Job
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rontheron
rontheron

I think you hit on a super important note with your advice on asking about measurable objectives.

You’re 100% right that if the hiring manager doesn’t know what those objectives are, you may be entering a directionless team.

And a team that can’t easily articulate their specific, intended results may very well be the first team to be cut in a re-organization.

Samuel Wineman
Samuel Wineman

What you noted is that there are hiring manages in their positions that will not be involved in your evaluation in the future. You need to find out if the person your talking to as a prospective employee is going to be involved seriously with you in the future.. Some corporations have job assignments so segmented that you may never see this person once your on board. This knowledge will affect your performance at any interviews with him.

Cynthia Knauss
Cynthia Knauss

This maybe for the corporate world but I think some of this information. Could be applied to the educational world as well!

dguralnick
dguralnick

I work primarily as a consultant, (to both large companies and small, sometimes on my own and sometimes on larger projects with the resources of a 50-person company I founded), and found that a lot of this article resonated with me as well. As a consultant, I am more diversified–if I decide to “quit” a difficult client, there are others–but when is that the right move vs. working at becoming a better influencer (which should be a core skill of a consultant, after all)? Also, determining which opportunities to pursue and (if offered) accept in a consulting role is not… Read more »

LORRAINE VALDES
LORRAINE VALDES

Impressed. Fantastic overview and insight on preparation and understanding for one in the Corporate pit. I look forward to updates and ability to forward onto many colleagues in the Corp world. Awesome job Lance!

dmoake
dmoake

I was miserable! My boss wasn’t just under qualified, but she was also dishonest!
Learning I couldn’t control her was one step, but realizing I had to move to another role was the next step.