Trumped by Ego: Lessons in Career Transition from The Donald

Posted July 16, 2015 in Career Management, Latest News & Insights

Business magnate and consummate self-promoter, Donald Trump has been at his run for the Republican Presidential nomination for just three weeks and has already managed to alienate people and burn business bridges. And that’s just as a result of his kick off speech! In true Trump style, the launch was filled with hostile jabs, bravado and indecent amounts of self-aggrandizing behaviour.

There’s an expression in recruiting that past behaviour dictates future behaviour. Smart interviewers know not to ask candidates hypothetical “what would you do in this scenario” questions, but rather “tell me about a time when you faced this type of scenario” questions.

Anyone who has watched Trump’s Apprentice TV show will have a strong sense of his leadership style. During his official announcement his style didn’t alter. This is true for all of us. Although we all evolve and grow and can, in fact, adjust our behaviours over time, it’s not easy and – depending on how “hard wired” our behaviours are – it’s very difficult to maintain. You’ll frequently hear people talk about how an individual was “good for a while”, but then went back to their usual way of operating. True behaviour change takes hard work and – most importantly – a desire to want to change.

For Donald Trump, his way of behaving as a combative, self-promoting, hard charging bully has seemingly served him well in the real estate business. Why change that? Unfortunately for Trump, holding a political office is not the same as being the King of your own little fiefdom.  What are strengths for you as a leader in one arena become screaming liabilities in another. Leadership is situational. To be successful, you need to have the ability to adapt your approach.

Like any leader moving into a new arena, Donald Trump could have benefited from some leadership coaching to help him get off on the right foot. Sadly, he’s probably not that coachable. But, to those that are looking to transition industries or make a significant career move to a new sector, here are some things to keep in mind as you make it a smooth one:

Know the new language: Every organization has its own unique culture but at the core, all culture is the culmination of what people in that company say and do. These collective behaviours are what we refer to as our “organizational values”. For any leader starting in a new company, your exposure to values begins in the interview process and great companies know to interview for cultural fit. If, however, you join a company that’s less sophisticated, it will be up to you to know how to adapt your style to fit with the stated (and unstated) expectations of the culture. For Trump, he’s aware of the culture of the US political landscape. He’s just chosen to steamroll over it. The ability for any one person to change an entire organization’s culture borders on the delusional (unless, perhaps, you stage a coup). It’s much easier to join an organization that aligns to your existing strengths vs. thinking that the company will adapt to you.

Know yourself: self-insight is, bar none, the biggest asset any leader can have. Understanding how your behaviour impacts those around you is critical to being able to move successfully into new leadership situations. 360 feedback is essential for leaders to understand their impact versus intentions. In Trump’s case, he likely scores high on the narcissism scale (as most politicians and celebrities do) which means he’s going to reject any feedback that doesn’t conform to his own inflated view of himself, but for the rest of us, it’s a must-do. If your company doesn’t do 360’s, you can do your own by asking the people around you for feedback on the things you do well as a leader plus one thing that they think you could do differently.

Recognize your liabilities: for most successful leaders, it’s actually not their “weaknesses” that trip them up. It’s the overuse of their strengths. Understanding how to counterbalance your strengths becomes essential. For Trump, he could practice more active listening to counterbalance his preponderance to talk too much. Ask people around you what behaviours you could demonstrate “more of” and what you could demonstrate “less of”. It’s likely that some of the “less of” behaviours are your strengths being overused.

Get rid of the Yes (Wo)Men: The problem many successful people face is that, once they get a taste of power and prestige, they start believing their own hype and surrounding themselves with sycophant’s who oblige their every whim. It happens with celebrity leaders like Trump, but it can happen to the rest of us as well. Power corrupts. It’s important to continually practice receiving feedback and staying grounded by doing activities beyond your job that give meaning and purpose. Join a peer group to help get other perspectives on your leadership, get involved in a charity or coach a kids sports team. Put yourself in situations where you’re not the smartest person in the room and you have something to learn.

For Donald Trump, the run for the nomination will likely be a short-lived one. Arrogance and ego aside, his story provides a cautionary tale for any leader who finds themselves navigating a new leadership culture and wondering why their tried and true approach is falling short. Again, leadership is situational. Know how you need to adapt to be successful and don’t try to jump into an organization that operates too far outside your own strengths and approach. You can flex your behaviours for a while but, overtime, you’ll likely revert back to the things that are hardwired. Why not make your life easier and go somewhere where that approach is valued? See you back that the real estate negotiating table soon Mr. Trump.

This article original appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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