The Hall of Mirrors – Jobs and Job Perceptions

Another liminal space – the hall of mirrors

Anyone who has worked for a while quickly discovers that jobs can be a hall of mirrors where things are not quite what they seem, where the jobs widely perceived to be great are actually awful, and where the best test may not be your bragging rights.

Any independent consultant can you tell you the true test of a job is what your parents tell their friends about your work. Job status is a currency of success. Not fitting the models of hierarchy and familiar company or industries can be hard for people to grasp. When I was independent, my family would often say I worked at Microsoft because my status as a Microsoft MVP meant I had the swag and that was something people could understand.

We also know that many fancy high status roles are full of disappointed people. The work of being in a high status profession like lawyers, investment bankers, CEOs, and entrepreneurs might be attractive socially but the hours, stresses and family demands offset remuneration for many. The actual work in many of these roles is less rewarding than some expect from outside the industry. The pressure can make careers short.

Differences in corporate culture, business models and other minor changes can mean the same role in a different business is actually a completely different role. So many people jump from a business to a competitor chasing money or a promotion to discover they have landed somewhere completely alien. The two jobs only looked alike.

The one question people often forget to ask in a job interview is ‘what would I actually do?’ We are so keen to appear in control and capable that we sell ourselves against the wrong opportunities. Employers can fool themselves by selling the job and not addressing the real challenges.

In my 30s desperate for a great gig, I agreed to be introduced by a headhunter to a founder of an early internet startup as a CEO candidate. My first warning was that the Internet start-up was in the offices of a building full of listed junior mining companies. The founder was a mining promoter who had bought slices of internet businesses to list as a corporate vehicle. He wanted a CEO for the listing. The job was really well paid except there was only one thing to do raise more money and sustain the share price so the the founder and his mates could sell out at a profit after listing. As he gleefully explained the share price couldn’t fall far enough for them to make a loss as their entry price was below a cent a share. My competence was irrelevant. The CEO was just a fancy expensive element of their profits. Somebody else took that job.

The best way to guide yourself through this hall of mirrors is to found yourself in the real. Let go of the focus on fancy industries, fancy brands and fancy titles. Focus instead on the work and its impact. Focus on the quality of the people you will work with and the quality of their relationships. Focus on what you will learn and the capability you gain to do what comes next.

Don’t treat any job as the last one. Focus always on that job as the next one and see where it takes you.

The unheralded corners of the job market are where you often discover the greatest work, relationships and development. These roles are those that might not appeal to your grandma, but create greatest value for you. Choosing this way is most likely to lead you somewhere you want to go.

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