It’s hard to imagine that your values play a big role in the level of success you achieve in your career, but they do. In a recent session with Mike, a finance guy with a high tech company here in Atlanta, we were able to highlight how a simple misalignment of values can impede career mobility.

Mike had been at this company for 4.5 years and had seen some success early on but had somehow reached a plateau. He did get one promotion that made him head of his department. He was happy then. However, somewhere along the road, he began to lose momentum with his career and the grip on his happiness.

To assess Mike’s situation, we took a quick look at his Work Reward Values. These values were identified by Dr. Timothy Butler, Senior Fellow and Director of Career Development Programs at HBS, in development of a simple values inventory. It is called the Management and Professional Reward Profile (MPRP) inventory. With a few modifications to this inventory, we created a personal hierarchy of these thirteen value dimensions which enabled us to identify the work-related rewards that were most meaningful to Mike. Such values are keys to performance because they drive behavior.

In reviewing his test results, we found two key values that ranked very high, indicating these values as a “must-have” in his job. The first value was Security. This value relates to how his position offers security in terms of predictable salary, benefits and future employment. The second value was Autonomy. Autonomy deals with the amount of independence he has in his job. For Mike, both of these values must be present in his position. If they weren’t, it would show up somehow.

So how did they show up?

Looking back at his career path within the company, we could not see any places where he failed to perform. He worked long hours, accomplished his goals and was always available when the company needed him. His performance assessments were fine. Yet, something had changed.

Indeed, something had changed but it wasn’t Mike, initially. The company had come through a peak performance period about two years ago. Since that time, the company hadn’t done so well and the owners of the company were looking to sell it. Every quarter they were bringing potential buyers through the company to see the operations. Little did the owners know that upper management had been making changes to make the company “look better,” both financially and operationally. Management had eliminated raises and bonuses and had pulled all decision-making authority up to their level. Mike couldn’t even approve a purchase for $250. He had to go to a VP to get a signature on his request.

Remember, Mike’s most important work reward values are security and autonomy. These were being threatened. The strong desire to sell the company was forcing management changes that conflicted with Mike’s values. According to Edward E. Lawler III, author of Talent: Making People Your Competitive Advantage (Jossey-Bass, April, 2008) and Distinguished Professor of Business at Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, corporations often affect the values of their employees by doing the wrong things in a crisis, such as a recession. Once the company began to change, so did Mike. He couldn’t see it but management could.

At some point, Mike became stressed. Then, he became unhappy. As this misalignment of values continued over time, Mike teetered on the edge of frustration. Something had to be done.

The company would be sold. Mike couldn’t change that. So we decided to change his vision, since that is what we could control. The first change was security. Mike had tied his security to his salary and future employment. We refocused him by redefining the measurement of this value, not on money, but on accomplishments. Mike began keeping track of his accomplishments. He kept a list of them and ranked them by difficulty, seeking to ensure the next accomplishment was more difficult than the last. This served to curb his desire for money and increase his desire for intellectual challenge (which also scored fairly high on his survey).

The second change was to the amount of autonomy he felt he had. This need was filled by many of the actions in the first change for security. In accomplishing more tasks, he began to volunteer for special projects and lead project teams. By taking the lead on these special projects, Mike has full authority over the actions of each member. This serves two purposes: fill his need to have independent authority and build people management skills.

Just as we learned with Mike, managing your career for success takes real work. Organizations will change. That’s a certainty. So will you (and your values). Sometimes the changes are so subtle, that you don’t even know it until bigger symptoms emerge. To keep such misalignments at bay, it’s best to monitor your values. Access what’s important to you and compare it with your surroundings to ensure your needs are being met. Think back to college days and why you go the degree you did. I started my career as an engineer to meet my strong desire for intellectual challenge. Over the years, the desire for learning still exists, but not so much for the physical sciences. Once that feeling changed, so did my career path. It changed by design, not by circumstances.

Career success is better achieved by defining (and redefining) your vision. Know what values are important to you. Ensure they are present. Good luck. As my dad would say, “Drive with the lights on.”

Author's Bio: 

Todd Rhoad is the Operating Director at BT Consulting, a career consulting firm in Atlanta, GA. Author of the recently released book, Blitz The Ladder, Todd holds a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Missouri and a MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University. You can reach him at todd.rhoad@blitzteamconsulting.com.