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Finding a position that suits you well

Each workday morning, “Mary” goes to the second of the two closets in her bedroom, finds something “tailored,” puts it on, and goes to work. In the legal department where she works, all the attorneys are expected to wear tailored clothing. In that way, the legal department is able to maintain its professional image.

Mary’s commute is reasonable. Her office is pleasant and nicely furnished. She appreciates the office window and the morning light that greets her each day. Mary is an expert in her practice area and is well-respected. By all appearances, her work environment seems pleasant enough. Yet, each morning as Mary begins her day, she has a stomachache. As she tells me her story, Mary is dispirited, anxious and often tearful. I wonder what Mary can’t stomach about her job.

Occasionally, Mary has a Friday off work. Those days are precious to her and she devotes them to writing. Mary is a gifted writer and has completed her first novel and submitted it to several publishers. In the meanwhile, she has started her second novel. In what time remains, she enters writing competitions. As she describes her writing, Mary is animated, smiles easily and is clearly enthusiastic.

Mary’s Fridays are not only for writing. She also comes to consult with me on Fridays. She wants to design a life that is more satisfying and to be able to enjoy more of the life she lives. When she comes to my office, Mary dresses in a casual, comfortable and colorful way. This appears to be her “natural” style. She keeps such clothing in the first of her two bedroom closets. The tailored clothing in the second closet is her “adapted” style worn to her workplace. In some sense, Mary’s life is clearly demarcated by the two closet doors.

Many of us separate our clothes by function. Doing so can be pragmatic and actually make life easier. Like Mary, many of us work in an office setting and dress accordingly. A large office, like Mary’s office, may be quite formal and stylized. A small office can be very individualized, even idiosyncratic. Working for government can be more casual, unless management wants the attorneys to be “court-ready” at all times. So, as we think we need to, we adapt to our work environments. For some of us, the adaptation is easy. For others, like Mary, the adaption is literally painful.

I recently was asked to work with 20 people in leadership positions at a hospital to assess how easily each of them “fit” in their respective management roles. Their roles were many and varied, including managers of surgical services, food services, human resources, pharmacy, facilities, IT, and emergency services. They all took an online assessment. Afterward, I spoke to them individually to interpret the results, assessing their “natural” styles and how much each of them had to adapt in their respective management roles at the hospital. As it turned out, most of them had found a reasonable fit with their management role and reported little need for significant adaptation in the work place. They also came to understand their individual differences and how together they contributed to the success of a high-functioning and high-stakes organization.

As for Mary, she is now experimenting to see what she might change in her work environment. For example, she brought a couple of her favorite writing guides to her office and placed them on the edge of her desk. Their proximity is a comfort. Also, Mary brought some of her favorite pens to her office. She ordinarily uses these pens when she does her writing. Mary finds satisfaction in having these pens in hand at her office. She also is experimenting with a less tailored look at work. In all of this, she seeks self-understanding and to learn if she can more comfortably work in her law department. For her, as for all of us, the stakes of the “fit” at work can be high. In the meanwhile, Mary is looking into other work opportunities and may even devote herself full-time to her writing if her novel is accepted for publication.

A few questions for you:

  • How well do you fit in your current position? What suited you earlier in your career might not suit you well today.
  • What might you do to enhance your satisfaction? Learn from others. What do you observe others doing that you might also do?
  • Who might be a committed listener, someone who is both a good listener and a deep resource? Flying solo has its risks.

From where I stand, career satisfaction is in large part determined by how well the work environment suits the person. For example, is the client comfortable being measured by the metrics of success applied in the workplace? Does the client sense being welcomed in the workplace and valued for the contributions he or she makes? Not surprisingly, many of my clients are in transition, wanting to have a work environment that better suits them. Some move from one law firm to another; others move between government service and private practice; others move into or out of the judiciary; others devote themselves to pro-bono work; while others leave the practice of law. As they probe their dissatisfaction and plan their move, clients need to understand themselves, know their values and what will suit them best in their next move. Moves are costly and disruptive. Getting it right is well worth the effort.


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