3 Ways to Avoid Taking the Wrong Job — and What to Do About It When You Do

Posted 01.11.2012

You may have missed the story with all of the coverage on the New Hampshire primary, but White House chief of staff, Bill Daley, resigned this week after just about a year on the job.  Daley is a high profile example of the oft cited statistic that anywhere between 25% and 40% of newly hired or promoted executives don’t last in their jobs for more than 18 months.

As it happens, a senior executive friend of mine recently let me know that she had left a new job less than three weeks after accepting it. Now, that’s fast! Intrigued by her news, I asked her if I could interview her for the Next Level Blog to learn more about what she thinks she missed during the hiring process, how she figured out so quickly that she had taken the wrong job and how she gracefully extracted herself from it.

Obviously, to protect her confidentiality I’m not going to get into all of the details of her situation, but there are some good lessons here for any manager or executive who’s considering taking a new job:

What to Watch for During the Recruiting Process

  • Use Your Head and Gut in Equal Measures – My friend had some very specific career objectives that she wanted to accomplish in her next job. The position she was being recruited for seemed to match all of those. Her head told her it was the right move. Meanwhile, her gut was picking up on some things that she now realizes she should have paid more attention to.
  • Ask “Who’s Selling to Who?” – In retrospect, my friend realizes that the hiring company was selling itself harder to her than she was selling herself to it.  There was an air of desperation that she overlooked because the logic (the head analysis) of taking the job matched up against her career growth criteria.
  • Pay Attention to Customs and Artifacts – Looking back on it, my friend realizes that there were some things that the hiring company did during the recruiting and offer process that were just plain weird. These turned out to be clues to the culture that she was signing up for. As Edgar Schein points out in The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, it helps to assume the role of an anthropologist when evaluating an organization. What do the customs and artifacts tell you about the true culture of a company vs. the stated culture?

How to Get Out Gracefully

  • Rip the Band Aid Off Quickly – Once she was in the office and had her feet on the ground, my friend quickly realized she was in the wrong place. She knew she had to get out. It was just a question of when and how. The metaphor I use in situations like this is that you can rip the band aid off quickly or you can peel it off slowly so you feel every little hair getting pulled up with the adhesive backing. It’s going to hurt either way, so why not do it quickly?
  • Focus on the Facts – My friend handled her departure so gracefully that it really didn’t hurt that much. She did so by focusing on the facts she had learned in her first couple of weeks on the job. She realized that the future she had been sold in the recruiting process did not square up with the actual resources of the company. She asked for a meeting with one of the top executives and laid out her conclusions and decision to leave. He was surprised but respected her analysis and the way she presented it.
  • Respect Yourself. Respect Them. – In the end, neither side is served by dragging things out when an executive concludes they’ve taken the wrong job. It’s not fair to either party to drag it out. The executive would just be spending their time looking for their next gig and likely damage their reputation in the process. The company would not be getting the performance they thought they’d be getting and would still end up having to conduct another search. Respecting yourself and the other party by making the tough but honest call is the right thing for everyone.

So, there you go. Real life lessons from a real life situation.

What about you? Have you ever taken a job that you regretted taking almost immediately? How did you know and how did you handle it?