Why I feel sorry for Donald Trump

By Dirk Verburg

How you can prevent pursuing the wrong role and what you can do if you find yourself in one.

Trump Skidmore
Photo by George Skidmore

No – this is not the title of yet another ‘Trump-bashing’ article, but a genuine empathetic feeling I have for Donald Trump. I already suspected for a long time what Donald Trump recently admitted, namely that he finds the job of being president of the US harder than he expected. The reason I feel sorry for Donald Trump is that I think he might have made a mistake a lot of us are prone to. It is the mistake of applying for a prestigious job, without a proper vision as to what the actual content might be and without honestly reflecting whether this content plays to our strengths and will keep us engaged in the future.

Why people pursue roles that do not fit them

In general there are two reasons why people pursue jobs that do not fit them: ambition and extrinsic motivation.

Despite all the fairy tales in business magazines and management literature, appointments of people to senior positions hardly happen without the active involvement of the individuals themselves. To quote Cronin and Genovese: Ambition is invariably a driving element. Although individuals that are promoted to senior roles might claim that they were unexpectedly‘ being tapped’, or even display some optical resistance and doubt, this often has more to do with following a Hollywood script than reality.

An additional complication is that the scarcer an item is, the higher the perceived value. This rule also applies to positions in society and business: the more senior the position, the more scarce and hence the higher the perceived value. Ultimately this can lead to situations where individuals do not longer pursue a position for its content, but only because the position is perceived as being scarce, and therefore valuable.

The second reason is extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation refers to the fact that people sometimes pursue activities not because they like performing the activities in itself, but because of the rewards they will receive as a result of their efforts. An example in daily life would be someone that does not like jogging, but only does it to loose weight. In the context of this article extrinsic motivation often originates from the perks attached to senior positions: the corner office, the design furniture, the PA, the car, the first class travel or even the company plane, the salary, the bonus and the stock options, etc.

Feeling caught

So what is the problem that Donald Trump and others who are in the same position face? The answer is easy: the content. Once the status element is confirmed by the announcement and the novelty of the perks has worn of, people find themselves in a job they do not like.

There can be a myriad of reasons why people who are being promoted to a more senior position do not necessarily like them. These reasons include:

  • The competition between colleagues can be much fiercer
  • There are usually more stakeholders, often with considerable power, whose demands might not be aligned
  • The job might require new, or a different mix of, skills
  • Success might be more difficult to measure and can take longer to achieve

These factors remain present 24/7, often leaving the incumbent with a role that drains energy instead of generating it.

Hearing Trump’s comments I have the feeling he may also realize that the content of the role is different than he expected. I do not mean this derogatory, but I simply try to be objective. Whatever one’s opinion about Donald Trump might be, to build a business in the private sector like Donald Trump has done is equally, if not more, difficult than being a successful president of the US. The issue however it that, although both are difficult, the challenges they pose are completely different…

According to Jan Mares, who had senior roles in both the public and the private sector, key differences between management in the public and the private sector in the US include amongst others: the way in which success is measured, market-driven competition versus a legislated monopoly, alignment of authority and responsibility, decision making processes and the speed at which decisions can be implemented.

Given these differences it is clear that different senior leadership positions may require a completely different approach and skill set, largely depending on the environment and context in which they are positioned.

Fake it until you break it?

What should we do when we find ourselves caught in job we do not like? There are a couple of possibilities, each with their pros and cons:

  • Fake it until you make it’ – Keep trying to make the job a success for yourself and the organization. This often requires a plan (what will you do different), and engaging a coach in these situations might be a good idea.
  • Accept – Sometimes we start a job with great ambitions of what we want to achieve, only to find out that our ambitions were unrealistic in the first place. There can be different reasons for this, including a lack of resources or a lack of support from senior leaders and/or important stakeholders. In these situations we can decide to adapt our ambition level and settle for a less ambitious agenda.
  • Tweak – Use opportunities to change the content of the role. Try to take new exiting projects on board and ‘offload’ the less attractive part of your role to other people in the organization (who might like them and be good in them). If you do this in a successful manner you might wind up with a completely different job than the one you started with.
  • Review – Unless you are part of the C-suite, there might be possibilities to move to another role in the organization. If that is the case, an open conversation with your line manager might be in order.

If these strategies (or a combination thereof) fail, there might only be one alternative left: Quit. In her book ‘Emotional Agility’ Susan David describes these decisions as ‘Grit versus Quit’ decisions. There might come a point where your demands and the requirements of the job are simply incompatible, and stepping out might be the only logical course of action.

Waiting too long with charting your course of action has a big risk: ‘You might fake it until you break it’. If you do not like the role you may also find yourself in a situation where you cannot be successful. In these situations you might not be the one calling the shots, but the organization might decide to call them for you.

Be careful what you wish for

The best strategy however is to prevent finding yourself in these situations in the first place. In order to do this you need to first of all envision what the content of the role is, and secondly, reflect on what skills the role requires, and whether you have these skills.

Examples of possible disconnects include:

  • The role requires extensive political skills and you are not effective in office politics
  • The role has ‘Business Development’ targets attached, and you do not like sales
  • The role deals with technically complex matters in which you are not interested
  • The role requires 24/7 dedication, and you value your work-life balance

Do not accept a role with serious disconnects; otherwise what attracts you to a position might be a “siren song”. A temptation that might be hard to resist, but, if you give in, will only lead to professional misery.

Originally published May 9, 2017 on LinkedIn.com

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