What have I got myself into? 7 tips for handling a ‘poisoned chalice’ career opportunity

August 31, 2015

Have you ever been given a fabulous career opportunity that didn’t turn out to be quite such an unalloyed joy after all? In the last month or so, I’ve worked with five different people – some in medium-sized businesses, some in multi-national corporations – whose exciting new jobs turned out to be something of a poisoned chalice. It seemed worth exploring what organisations are doing here and how you should handle it if you find yourself being handed such a cup.

Here’s how it happens

There’s a team, a department or a business unit that’s coasting. Not actually failing, that would be obvious, but happily plodding along, satisfied with performance that’s just about adequate. They may have a terrible reputation in the rest of the organisation or in the market, but they think they’re doing just fine. Hints may be dropped but no one ever has a direct conversation about performance levels and expectations.

And then one day, somebody higher up decides enough is enough and appoints someone to raise the game of this ramshackle outfit. If they were really honest the message would be this: “We’re giving you Wigan Athletic and we want you to turn them into Real Madrid. The problem is they think they already are Real Madrid and we’ve never been brave enough to tell them they’re not. We’ll leave that to you. Good luck”.

But people are rarely that honest, so the eager new recruit walks into a situation not realising quite what an uphill struggle they face. So if you find yourself in that situation, here are 7 tips for handling your poisoned chalice:

1. Make sure you have public backing from the top

You don’t need them to agree with every single thing you do but if they’re not prepared to stand up and say (perhaps more diplomatically) “We brought this person in because you’re Wigan Athletic, not Real Madrid” then you’re on a hiding to nothing. Make sure you get their agreement or you may as well walk away now.

2. Listen a lot

You’ve probably been brought in because you’re an expert and you have a track record. You may even be seen as the saviour of the department or organisation. That can go to your head and also create incredible pressure to prove yourself. The temptation is to start showcasing all your best ideas and implementing sweeping changes to make your mark.

The people I’ve seen tackle this challenge best spent the first few months not doing much but asking a lot of questions. They recognise that being experts in their field is only half the picture. They wanted to get a really clear view of what was happening in their new organisation. Without that there’s a risk of implementing ‘cookie cutter’ solutions that are not tailored to the situation.

3. Assess the capability of your team

You are managing people who are not used to being put under pressure to deliver and are likely to be unsettled by your arrival. You need to give them a chance to prove themselves. There may be some ground rules or expectations you have to set out when you start but don’t put them under huge pressure from day one. Work out who’s got the potential and who’s up for the challenge. You may need to move some people around and possibly even let some go, but try to do so in a humane way that maintains people’s dignity. And remember point 1.

4. Have a grand vision

You need to paint a picture of what’s possible so people have something to aspire to. This is a vision, not a set of demanding targets, and needs to be inspiring not threatening. It also needs to be believable; showing people the steps you can take together to get there is a big help.

5. Be pragmatic

Put your grand vision to one side and work with whoever is willing to work with you. You’re going to get plenty of resistance, so seize opportunities to prove your worth wherever you can. Build alliances, find quick wins, solve someone’s problem and let them be your advocate. In a situation like this, you’re unlikely to achieve your vision in a linear, planned progression. Be nimble.

6. Don’t expect compliance from other departments

Part of your grand vision may be that you take responsibility for everything in your functional area. Maybe you’re in HR and you want to be involved in all hiring decisions or you’re the new procurement guru and you know you can get the organisation better deals on everything. There just needs to be a policy telling everyone that’s what they have to do now. I’ve heard people in this situation say “They can’t just go out and do that*; they have to come through me”. *’That’ might be producing their own marketing materials, ordering non-standard software, sourcing their own training or whatever.

The thing is, if you’ve just taken over an under-performing department, others in the organisation are probably used to working around you. They don’t feel they have to do anything with you and they certainly can bypass if that’s what they’re doing. Stamping your foot about it is unlikely to bring them round. You need to prove that it’s worth working with you – see point 5.

7. Try not to take it personally

You’re unlikley to win any instant popularity contests in this situation, particularly if you’re actually effective in making these changes. Some of the feedback you receive may be harsh and unjustified. Some of your team may hark back to the halcyon days, when they weren’t under pressure, before the arrival of this demanding, arrogant know-it-all (i.e. you). Some of your peers may resent you muscling in on areas they were handling very well by themselves, thanks very much, and start engaging in turf wars.

The more emotionally resilient you are, the better you’ll be able to handle this. That doesn’t mean having a skin like a rhino and not giving two hoots about anyone else. It just means being able to distance yourself from emotionally from the fray and know that it’s not really about you.

If you’re facing such a challenge and would like some support in handling it, do get in touch: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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  1. cmbgreen September 10, 2015 at 11:01 am - Reply

    That’s a great article Caroline – thank you for posting it. Some excellent points and great advice.
    Keep up the good work ! Thanks, Chris

    • carolinegourlay September 11, 2015 at 10:38 am - Reply

      Thanks Chris. Hope you’re NOT finding your self in that situation

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