Don’t Let Complacency Derail Your Career
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Careers Nov 7, 2018

Don’t Let Complacency Derail Your Career

How to hone your learning agility and take good risks.

An outdated man works at his computer.

Riley Mann

Based on insights from

Carter Cast

All of us want to show up to work, settle in, and do our jobs well. But what happens when that comfort turns into complacency? According to Carter Cast, a clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School, individuals who have grown too comfortable may not feel safe and secure for long—on the contrary, they may be on track to derail themselves professionally.

Cast, the author of The Right (and Wrong) Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made—and Unmade, refers to people who have become complacent and resistant to change as “Version 1.0” employees who tend to lack curiosity, avoid taking risks, and want things to stay the same.

Indeed, in the modern work environment, failure to adapt can be lethal.

“You have to find ways to stay fresh, especially in this day and age with the massive rate of change in technology,” Cast says. “Disruption is everywhere.”

So what steps can you take to keep Version 1.0 tendencies from interfering with your career progress? Cast offers five tips.

Understand the New Job

Many people find that they have trouble adapting after getting a big promotion.

“They get promoted and their boss thinks, ‘They’re so good, they got promoted. They’re going to be fine,’” Cast says. But in reality, new positions come with different demands and different ways to evaluate success. So, when you are newly promoted, it is important to keep in mind that what worked in your old job will very likely not be the successful formula for the new job.

As a newly promoted employee, you should take time to learn your supervisor’s expectations. “Ask the boss: ‘With this new job, what will I have done in two years to make you think that this was a good move to promote me? What are the key success metrics I should be aiming for?’” Cast says.

“I want to constantly be figuring out ways to feel like I’m learning new skills and gaining new knowledge.”

Cast recommends that after receiving a promotion, you should also reach out to others who have made a similar transition as a way to understand both the position’s and the organization’s expectations. “Ask them, ‘What were the biggest challenges when you moved to this level? What advice would you give me about this transition? Which departments and people are critical for me to align with?’”

Yet getting honest advice from peers is not always easy. As a person takes on more senior roles, they not only receive less feedback, but also receive less “real” feedback, since they are now the boss, or close to it, and some coworkers may feel conflicted about being candid with a colleague to whom they may report in the future.

Nevertheless, you should seek it out if you want to be successful in your new position—and if you hope to receive another promotion down the line.

Increase Your Learning Agility

Cast recalls meeting a sales manager who refused to understand social-media platforms to find new clients, believing that those platforms were the domain of the marketing team. “He said, ‘I don’t need to understand all this social-marketing mumbo jumbo. Selling is a face-to-face activity. It’s a contact sport.’ I said, ‘Really? With all the lead generation possibilities that digital marketing provides, you don’t really need to understand and utilize it?’”

Like many Version 1.0 people, that sales manager lacked what Cast calls “learning agility,” or the ability to quickly develop and apply new skills. Learning agility is especially crucial for those seeking senior management positions. Most successful managers are constantly experimenting with new ideas, learning from customers and competition. They are also reflective, in that they critically examine their past efforts and seek feedback from others in order to improve.

But this trait may diminish as people reach mid-career. This is a time where being comfortable doing things the same way you always have can mean falling into a rut. So how do you keep what Cast calls a “beginner’s mindset”?

Here, Cast likes to quote LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman’s maxim: “It helps to consider yourself in a constant state of beta.”

This means forcing yourself to acquire new skills that could help you down the road. If you work in sales, for example, you might take time to understand how the marketing team leverages its social marketing assets.

Honing this discovery mindset need not be limited to the workplace, either. Something as simple as taking a new route to work, or having lunch with a colleague you don’t know well, might challenge you to think differently.

Identify Your Areas of Innate Resistance

Is there a particular topic, or a particular colleague, that you seem to bristle at constantly? If so, then you may have what Cast deems an “area of innate resistance.” “That’s probably a growth area that you need to look at,” he says.

If those areas are not addressed, they can stifle career growth. For one, disagreeing with a particular person or idea too often can make you seem unapproachable and unwilling to consider colleagues’ ideas. Furthermore, Cast warns, having a large number of these triggers means you might be spending too much time and energy on what you already know, and not enough time being open to what you could learn.

Cast often tells students about the idea of a learn-to-leverage ratio, or the time you spend learning relative to the time you spend leveraging what you already know. Early in your career, Cast says, your learn-to-leverage ratio should be about 70:30. Later in your career, your ratio may move closer to 60:40—but it should not stray below that, Cast warns.

“I want to constantly be figuring out ways to feel like I’m learning new skills and gaining new knowledge.”

Fight against Risk-Aversion

Version 1.0 types tend to be risk-averse people. While attention to detail and risk mitigation are critical concepts, risk aversion can be paralyzing in a business context, where trying new things—and failing—are inherent in any job.

“Version 1.0 people need to adopt the ‘lean thinking’ mentality in order to refresh their thinking and test new ideas,” Cast says. “[Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos runs test pilots and A/B tests constantly, developing hypotheses and prototypes and then testing them rapidly with customers and in test markets.”

Version 1.0 people should get comfortable sharing their own “minimum viable products” with key stakeholders, who can offer insights about how to update and improve the product going forward. If you wait until a product has all the bells and whistles before you share your work with someone else, Cast says, you have waited too long.

So how can a risk-averse Version 1.0 know when to say “good enough” and get feedback on their work? Cast forces himself to consider the worst-case scenario if he shares his work now, versus the worst-case scenario if he puts it off. “Often, the risk of avoidance is worse,” he writes.

Expand Your Constituency Base

One danger of a Version 1.0 mindset is that, while you may feel like you have things pretty much figured out, your job may be changing around you—or even disappearing altogether. Cultivating and maintaining a strong and active network can help you adapt to larger professional trends across industries.

One day, when Cast was in his mid-thirties, he walked into work to discover that his job was being eliminated due to a reorganization in his division office. He immediately placed a call to a mentor at his company headquarters—and within weeks, he had a new job.

Management research shows that highly successful people tend to have a robust constituency base, what Cast describes as a high-speed knowledge network of friends and peers that they rely on for information and assistance.

A strong, diverse network can help you bounce back after a challenge or shake-up. To firm up your own constituency base, Cast recommends making a list of the key duties that your job requires. Next to each, write down the people within your organization who can help you succeed at that specific activity. Then ask yourself some questions about each person on that list: How strong is your relationship? Do you know their goals and objectives? And how can you help them accomplish those goals?

When you help others move forward, they will want to help you in return, Cast says. This creates a circle of reciprocity that can be critical to a successful career.

“Many people are focused on their tasks in front of them, and they just don’t realize the extent to which business is a complex set of interdependencies,” Cast says. “So you have to figure out, when you map your job out and you look at the connective tissue, how well are you connected?”

Featured Faculty

Michael S. and Mary Sue Shannon Clinical Endowed Professor; Clinical Professor of Strategy

About the Writer
Marc Zarefsky is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois.
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