Career missteps should be treated as learning experiences

Dear Joan:
I am a fairly young human resources professional. I earned my master’s degree immediately after college and landed a fabulous job out of graduate school doing exactly the type of work for which I had been trained. I thrived in the position for three years, gradually taking on additional responsibilities and receiving many accolades from my bosses and from my customer departments.

Last fall, I applied for and accepted what seemed like a dream job with another organization. This position entailed a substantial promotion, particularly for someone my age. However, almost immediately after taking the new job, I realized I made a substantial mistake. The culture of the new organization is not receptive to professional human resource management, fellow department heads undermine my decisions and suggestions and fellow employees are not friendly toward me. I am completely isolated. Although my boss and others say I’m doing a great job, I’m miserable and it’s too late for me to go back to my former employer, as another employee now holds my position.

I have made several attempts to get a different job, but hiring managers to whom I send resumes overlook me. When I call them to follow up, they convey that they are not comfortable with my desire to leave my current position after such a short time. Although I try to put a positive spin on the situation, they seem suspicious that I’m being fired. I’m even starting to doubt my abilities after so much rejection!

I have two questions as a result of this experience.

1.      How does one best get back on track after taking a career misstep?

2.      How does one frame such a misstep on his resume and in an interview so the hiring manager does not develop a negative perception of him as a candidate?

Thank you for any advice you can give me in this regard.

Similar to raising children, you can read all the books and be opinionated about the right way to do it, but when you’re faced with reality it is not likely to happen "by the book." Although you are educated, I think you would agree that you are under-experienced. As you are now painfully aware, your profession is a lot more than just "professional human resources management." It involves the ability to operate within the culture to move in baby steps and get buy-in on needed changes.

I suspect that you may have tried to take some of the things you did in your former company and apply them in your new company before you had fully understood the culture you were in. Perhaps you didn’t spend enough time earning trust and respect from your internal customers before imposing changes. One of the best lessons I ever learned in consulting is that you must first figure out where the organization is, then find out where they really want to go, and then determine if they have the heart and will to do what it will take to get there.

If senior management is indeed happy with your initiatives, it appears that they have done little to support you. If you know what they really want, do they have the heart and will to get there? My first question to you is, "Does top management really understand their role in all this or are they going to let you twist in the wind?" Secondly, "Have you partnered with top management and coached them to lead the new initiatives and hold people accountable for making the changes they say they want?" Finally, "Have you taken a learning attitude, or are you seen as the hot shot know-it all?" If you can make progress on these issues, you have a chance of turning your situation around. If not, you probably have been derailed.

Now, to answer your two questions:

Regarding getting back on track, you will need to operate on two levels. Work on improving your situation at work and at the same time, start networking and getting involved outside your organization. If you give up on your current job, you run the risk of getting fired or losing a good reference from your manager. If you quit before having a new job, employers could be even more suspicious.

One approach is to stay on your current job as long as possible (two years is ideal) while searching for a new job. Start by talking with your manager and asking his or her help and advice. Ask if soliciting feedback from your internal customers would be a good step to take. Try to identify mentors and advocates. Remember that these can be people in a variety of areas and various levels. Discuss ways in which top management could play a stronger role. Although it won’t be easy, force yourself to get out of your office and take a learning and listening approach with managers and employees.

In the meantime, join several human resources organizations and get active. The programming committee is a good place to start, because it is the heart of any professional organization and will expose you to the "who’s who" in your field. Another way to put yourself in a position to get hired is to become active in some non-profit organizations. By providing human resources help to them, you will meet many other professionals and executives who also donate their time. As they see what you can do, your name will be circulated among companies looking to fill human resources positions.

In your job search, one approach is to tell the hiring manager that your current situation is a poor fit. If you do, however, be prepared to explain the situation in positive terms. "Although my managers say I’m doing a great job, I have discovered that I prefer to work in a service business rather than in heavy manufacturing. My track record is strong with my former employer (a service firm) and it’s where my skills and approach fit best."

Learning from experiences such as this develops wisdom. If you decide to find another job, take a hard look at your skills and readiness before you accept a position. The key is to establish yourself in a position where you will learn and succeed. Don’t worry so much about what title or level you move to. Rather find an appropriate fit. This approach will help you get your career back on track. Take solace in the fact that the lessons you are learning now will make you more successful in the future.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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