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An outdated man works at his computer.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.

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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

Carter Cast

Clinical Associate Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship

About the Writer

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

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