How to Find a Career That Fits You

Design Candidate: I was fired from my last job.

Me: Why?

Design Candidate: The manager and I didn’t see eye-to-eye. I loved what I did, but it just didn’t work out.

Me: What do you mean you didn’t see eye-to-eye?

Design Candidate: Our personalities were very different.

Me: How many times has this happened in your career?

Design Candidate: More than I care to admit. Maybe three or four times? Maybe more?

Me: I see. Have you found a way to prevent this from happening again?

Design Candidate: No. I don’t know that I can do anything differently. I mean, how can you tell if someone’s an <explicative> or not until you get to know them?

Me: There is a way.

For over 20 years I’ve been supporting marketing and creative solutions and the exceedingly gifted people who do the work. Over this time, I’ve learned that the number one reason people leave jobs or drop clients, voluntarily or involuntarily, is “fit.” In other words, when the person is willing and able to do the work, but they don’t fit with the company culture, department or hiring manager, things tend to go south in a slow, painful way until someone cries Uncle and ends the relationship.

So what is “fit?” Personally, I think it’s likability, attitude, flexibility, character and conduct — all the intangible stuff that can only be learned when people begin working together, and is nearly impossible to screen for unless you know how to get to the truth without liquor or truth serum.

Although the analogy of dating compared to interviewing for a job sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me, there is a component of the hiring process that includes a courting and honeymoon period. The difference is, however, no job and no contract is ever permanent. And, no jewelry needs to be exchanged.

Therefore, we need to review job and contract opportunities for the purposes of specific project or program success, versus a long-term relationship. If the relationship does last, then you really nailed the fit!

Having said that, I’ve been with Aquent for 19 years. The reason my relationship has lasted as long as it has is because I’ve changed positions frequently, taken on new tasks, new challenges and responsibilities, and worked with a variety of people, which has kept things fresh for me. In other words, I’ve quit a lot of jobs in the past 19 years and accepted new positions within the same organization that were a good fit.

My first lesson about the importance of fit happened when I was 18 while working as a summer intern at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, NY. My manager told me that I was too outgoing and needed to “tone it down.” I was traumatized. After work, I sat in my car and cried. The next morning, I walked back into that office, greeted the man who traumatized me with a handshake and said, “Thank you for being honest.” Three months later, it was time for me to return to school. The department gave me a wonderful farewell party, and the manager who told me to tone things down hugged me and said, “You will do well.” Lessons learned — fit is important, and I must be willing to accept and change my behaviors if I want to stay in that job/company, not the other way around.

A few years later, I had to relearn that lesson, but in a different capacity. While working as an account manager at Advantage Staffing, I called out sick one day — a rare occurrence for me, and what turned out to be a reprieve for my client. On that sick day, one of my clients called and got my colleague on the phone. When my client learned that I was out sick, her reaction was, “Oh thank God!” My colleague, shocked and trying to keep a straight face, said (paraphrasing), “I’m surprised to hear this, Lee’s usually great…” The client, an office manager at a large law firm in Maryland said, “Oh, she is great. She’s just annoyingly upbeat.”

You see, I did the job well, but (again) my upbeat personality annoyed the client. How much more business could my company have received if the client and her primary point of contact were more simpatico? When I returned the next day, I called the client, in a less cheery voice, and said, “So I understand you’d be happier if I was less upbeat.” We both laughed. I met her at her level of cheer (which was none), and we got along just fine. Lesson learned — fit is everything.

So how does one find the right fit in the workplace? You begin by knowing and accepting the best work environment for yourself. Then, you ask learning questions to uncover the best fit for your prospective employer/client. Next, you both share, with complete honesty, what works, and determine next steps.

Test Drive. Whenever possible, try working on a project or two with a prospective employer before signing a hiring agreement. Temp-to-perm or contract-to-hire is a wonderful, risk-free hiring solution for the the job seeker and hiring manager. It’s worth inquiring to see if it’s an option.

Shift Your Thinking. Instead of looking at an employer as a boss, try looking at your hiring manager as a client. This approach has completely changed my relationships with my hiring managers (bosses, supervisors). I don’t stay in a job or at a company out of fear, I stay because I enjoy the initiative and the people I support. They keep me, not only because I’m wildly entertaining, but I can and will do the job, and I’m a reasonably good fit. Should either one of us decide that my services are no longer needed, or I no longer want to provide my services to them, we’ll have an honest conversation and make a decision on next steps, together. What a refreshing approach, right?

Finding the Right Fit. Doing these three things will help you make more informed career decisions, and lead to a more satisfied experience for you and your employer/client.

  1. Change your mindset. You are interviewing prospective hiring managers/clients as much as they’re interviewing you.
  2. Ask questions that help you screen for “fit.”
  3. Build your work persona, learn about the employer/client’s persona, then compare and contrast.

Build Your Work Persona. Respond to the questions below to help identify and articulate what the best work environment is for you.

  • Who was your best employer/client?
  • Why were they the best? (e.g, people, processes, tools, culture, etc.)
  • Are you still supporting them? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • What were the characteristics of the worst employer/client you’ve ever supported?
  • How long did you support them?
  • Why did you support them for as long as you did?
  • How did the relationship end?
  • What are three things that make you feel valued as an employee/contractor?
  • What are three things that must be present in your next employer/contract relationship?
  • What are the three things that must never be repeated in your next employer/contract relationship?

Learn An Employer’s/Client’s Persona. Drill down on each of the following questions until you have a clear image of how your prospective hiring manager/client works, how the company functions, and the unique culture of the department and company.

  • What was your most significant accomplishment?
  • What made it so successful? Hint: Listen for how they refer to colleagues and contractors contributing to their success.
  • What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
  • Tell me about your most valued employee/contractor relationship.
  • What made them so valuable?
  • How long did you work together?
  • Are you still working together? If so, what do you think keeps that relationship going? If not, why not?
  • What are the key characteristics that make people successful on your team? Within your organization?
  • Have you ever recommended a friend or a family member for a position/contract at your company? If not, why not? If they did, how successful was it?
  • What types of behaviors annoy you? Example: Annoyingly upbeat personalities.

Happiness. For me, happiness in the workplace is doing what I love, with people I love doing it with. Find your happy workplace. Frankly, life’s far too short to go about this work thing any other way.■

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Avatar photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Great post, Lee. Finding the right fit is huge! Learning how to adapt to different personalities while also staying true to yourself is key. Thanks for sharing your personal stories and insights.