Is Stepping Back The Right Move?

Last week we looked at the fifth personal transformer that being step back to grow. During the week I felt like Oprah as I received different emails with the same enquiry: “it is all well and good to claim ‘step back and grow’, but is it the right move?”

The queries came from those looking at individuals ranged from being asked to go into sales from marketing, going to brand management from a commercial role and the one with the most seduction: being asked to undertake a global role from a rockstar local one. In the end whether it is the chance to complete a career slingshot or a lifestyle choice for your family there are many benefits available if you are willing to step back to grow.

Last week we looked at the ‘internal’ elements of this model – aka the ‘benefits’. Just because there can be benefits to a strategic step back doesn’t mean it is always the right call. If you’re working toward an ambitious and potentially achievable goal, such as managing a division at your company or winning a C-suite job in your industry, there’s no need to. But if as an individual you’ve reached the top rung of the ladder you’re climbing, it’s time to find a new ladder – for the same reasons companies must seek out new markets.

As you continue to improve along the dimensions of performance that the employment market has historically valued, you risk overshooting demands. What you do reliably, if not brilliantly well, can be done just as effectively by many peers – and perhaps more swiftly and affordably by up-and-comers.

It is true that transformation in business tends to start out as a low-cost alternative, and of course you don’t want to embrace a career strategy that reduces your own price point. But when you disrupt yourself, you vector to a new set of performance metrics. And with personal transformation, compensation is not just financial – psychological and social factors also matter.

Early in your career, you are at the low end of the curve. You can take the jobs that no one else wants. There is little to lose in taking a step back. Senior employees are at the upper end of the organizational curve. If things get really bad, they likely have a golden parachute, and there is enough headroom to slingshot forward. The risk/reward math works. It is much more complicated if you are a middle manager. Trying something new could result in a steep slide back down the curve, with internal fiefdoms giving a none-too-collegial shove.

Just because you crouch before jumping doesn’t mean you’ll dive into a lake. It could be a shallow pond. One of my coaching clients is off the charts good at sales and he would like to get into private equity. Given his experience to date, this move will be more of a long jump than a hop and a skip, but it is doable. No doubt he will need to work harder in finance than in sales, so the slope of his improvement is steeper, but he is in the right ecosystem. He can logically make the leap from here to there. To avoid a dangerous fall, make sure the curve you want to jump to involves the right risks for you and leverages your distinctiveness.

There are instances where we abandon ship, whether in a business or a relationship, out of fear. The going gets tough, and we get gone. In my experience, the far more common challenge is mustering the courage to jump when you are comfortable. When the status quo doesn’t seem all that bad, jumping often seems needlessly risky. So, pack a parachute to make your jump a safer one.

One of the most difficult aspects of jumping to a new curve is setting aside your ego. As a colleague stated to me during the week “Have you ever let go of something both defines you, but also suffocates your evolution? Just like a snake shedding its skin, you have to lose something critical to grow, leaving you vulnerable and exposed in the process.”

“A transformation must measure different attributes of performance than those in your current value networks,” writes Clayton Christensen. In layman’s terms, when you are transforming you need to find the right metrics to measure you, and quite possibly these will be new metrics. As Michael Lewis chronicles in his best selling book Moneyball, the cash strapped Billy Beane reframed the game by recasting the way he measured the performance of the Oakland Athletics.

To get you thinking about how you might more intelligently measure your performance on a personal level, ask yourself: How am I defining success? When you were young, success metrics were handed to you by parents and teachers. They likely included what grades you got, which University you got into, what job you got, or how little trouble you got into. Once you’ve hit these marks, and you accelerate into a sweet spot of competence and contribution, you begin to play by your own metrics.

Consider some forward-thinking metrics in the workplace. According to Dr. Stacey Petrey, “there are additional categories / metrics by which to measure performance:


Is simply showing up perhaps the most important metric of all? A look at some of the research has convinced me that Woody Allen was right, and 80% of success really is just showing up. According to Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at UC Davis, the odds of a scientist writing a groundbreaking paper, with success defined by the number of citations in other works, is directly correlated to the number of papers that the scientist has written, not the IQ of the scientist. If you want to write a frequently cited paper, publish a lot. If you want a successful business, get to work. If you want to sharpen your skills as a transformer, transform. A simple metric: show up and keep showing up.

Most people hit a point in their lives where they examine their trajectory and consider a pivot. We typically label this the midlife crisis. In transformation terminology, it’s a rethinking of which performance attributes matter. Famed developmental psychologist Erik Erikson describes this as a period of generativity, during which we have a wealth of knowledge and experience, and are supremely motivated to do not just for ourselves but also for others, as we ask the question: What can I do to make my life really count? The metrics that we use to define success shift as a consequence. Perhaps earlier in your career the metric was money or fame. Now you want more autonomy, flexibility and connection. These require different metrics of success. Only you can play moneyball for you. As social media and business strategist Liz Strauss said, “It’s not possible for the world to hold a meeting to decide your value. The decision is all yours.”

As you look to tip the odds of success in your favour, beware the undertow of the status quo – current stakeholders in your life and career, including family members, may encourage you to just keep doing what you are doing. The metrics you’ve always used to measure yourself are comfortable, and so are your established habits; performing well on your current path is practically automatic. You can almost convince yourself that staying put is the right thing. But there really is no such thing as ‘standing still’. The ‘use it or lose it’ principle applies to our brain cells just as it does to the muscles in our bodies. Neuroplasticity has a reverse function. Connections recede through a lack of activation, while continual stimulation of neural pathways keeps them healthy and active, including – and especially when you step back, down and sideways.

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