Tomorrow, I will meet my half-sister, Gabrielle, for the first time. I’ve mentioned this to a few dozen people over the two months that we’ve known about each other. I thought I would share it with about 6000 of my closest friends via this blog.
Our father passed away four years ago. He was not part of Gabrielle’s life, and he never told me about her. My sister grew up as the only child to a single mother. All she knew about her father was a misspelled name on a birth certificate. She took a DNA test and, voila, instant family!
I have to admit to a bit of shock when I learned I had a sister. Like tectonic plates shifting under my feet! I expected that it would take time to get used to not being an only child, at 63 years of age. But the shock lasted for only an hour or two. My next thoughts were about the hole Gabrielle had in her life that I could help fill. At the very least, I could help with family medical history. Having taken a DNA test, maybe she would be interested in the history of a family she did not know. Maybe a deeper relationship would blossom, as I hope and believe we are in the process of developing.
If you will allow me to move off of my personal human-interest story, I’d like to bring this experience to the kind of topic I usually cover. There are surprises in life and in business. Things don’t always go as you expect. And that can be a very good thing. But we have to be open to changing our preconceptions.
Imagine, after a successful twenty-year career with a Fortune 500 company, you are recruited by a $200M company to become its SVP of Operations. You have the accumulated knowledge of a world class organization that dazzles your new CEO and colleagues. You learned to take care of yourself in the rough-and-tumble politics of a big company. And you’ve built a reputation as a great leader with your previous employer.
Now you take stock of the new situation. The consistently excellent quality of the Fortune 500 workforce is far lumpier here. The systems in place are rudimentary. You worry that the “good enough” processes you want to enact might even be a bridge too far. And you sense that the collegial reception people gave you for the past twenty years has been replaced with a reserve that feels almost like folks are intimidated.
The history of experiences, the way you work because it has served you well, is sometimes called “employment baggage.” Leadership consultant Jeff Nischwitz put it this way: “Basically, employment baggage is what every employee brings to their new employment, new employer and new business relationships. This employment baggage is based upon all of the employee’s prior experiences (personal and observed), life experiences and even cultural messages.”
Just as we have emotional baggage, we have employment baggage. We expect that what worked for us in the past, is going to work in a new setting. Here’s the surprise: You are not working according to immutable laws of physics. What worked one place is not guaranteed to work in another. Put another way, we have to be aware of what our assumptions are and what factors in a new environment will support or refute those assumptions. We have to be ready to jettison some or all of our assumptions, to unload our employment baggage.
This isn’t always easy to do. Lifelong assumptions about myself were blown up in a single email. A perspective change allowed me to realize this was not primarily about me, but it was more about my sister. Getting answers was important to her, and she made the effort to find them. With employment baggage, the change in perspective is from what has made you successful, to what will make others successful. Using the tried and true approaches that have worked for you in the past is the starting point. But pay attention to whether you get the same results here as in your former company. If not, be prepared to get rid of the baggage. Probe about what your new stakeholders need. And change your approach accordingly.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.