Sunday, April 13, 2014

Planning to boomerang? Tips to avoid getting hit in the head.

Over the past month, I’ve made a significant, unplanned career transition. After returning to a former employer a year ago to pursue a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, I have again departed this firm to focus on brands and businesses seeking digital channel expertise. As a result, I’ve gotten a lot of “what happened” questions from across my network, and I thought it might be useful to provide some insight on my decision. While my story is unlikely to grace the pages of an HBR case study, I’m hopeful that you will find value in what I’ve learned.

While exit decisions are rarely easy, this one was particularly challenging for me, given the groundwork for success I was able to establish during my brief return. In addition, any high-profile, short-timespan entry in a career history is obviously going to draw scrutiny. Leaving a company in these circumstances demands extreme clarity regarding your reasons for departure: for yourself, the team you’ve led, and the management that invested in you.

So here, in no particular order, are the three (3) key lessons I learned over the last 12 months as a "boomerang".

(1) There’s no going home!
Boomerangs have a unique challenge that new hires with no organizational history avoid: the baggage of nostalgia. I came back to my former employer remembering the positive experience I’d had there previously, and minimizing the negatives that caused me to leave in the first place. It should surprise no-one that the negatives were still very much in existence, and that the positives I’d enjoyed previously were much less compelling to “modern me”.

I’m not suggesting that you should never consider a return to a former employer. In fact, I’ve had numerous colleagues who’ve made a successful boomerang transition. However, be sure you’re making objective decisions based on what the current organization has to offer.

(2) Trust, but verify
Another potential pitfall for boomerangs is expecting to get the unvarnished truth from former colleagues during the interview process. Even if you've had prior positive working relationships, a former colleague’s first priority (justifiably so) will be to limit risk to her own position within the organization. As a result, you may hear some broad generalities about problems in the work environment (e.g., “oh you know, every organization has its issues”), but straight talk will be minimal at best. In my case, a critical member of my team (with whom I had previously worked, and who had interviewed me) called me the day of my return to inform me she was resigning because of frustrations with the work environment.

Former colleagues can be a great source of input regarding changes in the environment and the specific work situation into which you’re walking. However, these discussions are better held “off the record”. Get out of the interview room and schedule coffee, lunch or drinks to depressurize the discussion. Also, have a plan for the discussion that soft-pedals your information needs. Don’t come on like a litigator; instead use the more relaxed atmosphere to informally guide the conversation towards the information you need.

(3) Secure your vision in advance
This final item is especially critical for boomerangs returning to a similar role, or a different role in the same program / department you left. You’ll almost certainly be coming back with knowledge and skills that you believe could add value to the organization. However, your former employer may be perfectly content with “more of what you were doing before”. Especially if the organization hasn’t evolved in your absence, those shiny new abilities might be as useful as sunscreen on a cloudy January day in Chicago.

This turned out to be my biggest challenge. I had spent five (5) years developing expertise around strategy, business adoption and effective technologies for enterprise collaboration; and, I saw a remarkable chance to apply these capabilities to transform my former employer’s business. Even though I made my desire to pursue this vision clear throughout the interview process, I made the mistake of confusing “acknowledgement” with “commitment”. While all my interviewers were interested in the concept of enterprise transformation, all they really wanted was for the trains to run on time.

Misalignment of individual capabilities and organizational needs is not just a boomerang problem. But, for boomerangs, it is crucial that this misalignment be addressed as early in the relationship as possible. This is because the organization still thinks of you as the “historical you” (i.e., the person you were when you previously departed). Skills gained in the interim are discounted, especially if you’re returning into the same program or a similar role in a different program. If you have a personal objective to utilize and further develop the knowledge and skills you gained outside of the organization, it is critical that there is mutual commitment to when and how your newfound abilities will be leveraged.