Is Your Current Position Defining Who You Are?

By John Palinkas
Organizational employee flow chart

Is Your Current Position Defining Who You Are?

By John Palinkas

My wife has made the decision to leave her current position in several months. She has been with her present employer for most of her career and has enjoyed her work. Of course, there is always the typical bureaucracy and office politics that get her frustrated, but I know she enjoys what she does.

She first decided to leave the company last year and has twice postponed her departure date. Part of the holdup involved her company asking her to stay, but I think the real reason she has stayed longer is very different. I think she is having the same problem that the majority of our workforce has. Her identity—how she thinks of herself—is very tightly linked to her current position. Most people's identity is so intertwined with their job that they have a crisis when they eventually leave that position. Whether the change is voluntary or not, they feel as though they are losing an important part of themselves.

I can relate to my wife's situation. I spent the majority of my career at AT&T. One year I was thinking about changing jobs. AT&T was downsizing and the severance package it was offering was fantastic. This was an involuntary plan, with AT&T picking who would be leaving. I thought about my situation and talked with my boss about selecting me. After all, it would make his life easier by picking someone who wanted the severance package and was willing to leave. He submitted my name, and then we waited for the official word from corporate.

I still remember that day when I was supposed to be notified. I was working from home and feeling extremely nervous. In fact, my hands were shaking. I thought to myself, "How stupid is that?" I wanted the package. I wanted to leave. And yet I was sitting at home, nearly scared to death. Why? At the time, I never understood why I was so nervous and scared, but now I do. At that time, I referred to myself as solution architect director, director of sales and so on. You get the picture. So much of who I thought I was as a person was tied to my position that the thought of losing it, even voluntarily, was a major shock to my system.

By the way, when I finally got the call and learned I was leaving AT&T, the news gave me an overwhelming sense of relief and happiness.

Helping Others Help Themselves

For the last four years, I have been a member of the NJ Chapter of the Society for Information Management (SIM). SIM is a national organization that brings together IT leaders to share, network and give back to their communities. I mention this because our chapter started a program called Members in Transition (MIT) a few years ago. This program helps members who are looking for a new job by bringing them together with "helpers" who can assist them with networking opportunities.

I have participated as a helper on a number of MIT calls. Over time, I have observed changes in the people participating in the MIT program and with my friends who are looking for a new job. I think a major part of the observed changes in people is caused by a loss of self, of identity. How many people do you know that refer to themselves as “the former CIO of xx" or "the former VP of Infrastructure at xx" even though they left these positions more than a year ago? Yes, your former job titles are a part of your career history, but they do not define who you are.

Is Your Current Position Defining Who You Are?

Let me give you an example of someone who has broken this paradigm, someone who has an identity that is separate and distinct from his current position. I first met Will Lassalle a few years ago when he was working as a contract project manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield. What made Lassalle so fascinating and why our company interviewed him was his blog, "Next Great CIO." Wait a minute, this guy is a project manager, not even a full-time employee, and he has a blog called the "Next Great CIO"? You see, the "Next Great CIO" is Lassalle’s identity. It is who he is. And because it is not tied to any position he holds, he will never lose it. Lassalle has hundreds of followers, which is amazing for a contract project manager.

Lassalle is currently head of North America IT for the StudyGroup. And he is the same person that we interviewed several years ago. He has the same identity. There are others like Lassalle, but the number of people who have an identity that is separate and distinct from their current position are few. To most people, their current position is so much a part of their identity that when they lose it, they lose a part of themselves. It is like Superman without his costume; he still has all of his supernatural powers, but he knows that people view him differently.

Creating a Separate Identity

In today’s world, it is rare for IT leaders to stay at a company for more than a few years. So what does that mean for your identity? Do you need to keep re-inventing yourself? Proving yourself in every new position? After all, the time to accomplish these things is compressed because of the shortened tenures with each new company or position.

At The IT Transformation Institute, we realized that the IT leader of the future, the leader of the next-generation IT organization, will need an identity separate and distinct from their current position. They will need an identity that will move with them between companies and positions, an identity that defines them and their purpose so they can quickly start transforming their new organization. But the question remains, how do you establish that new identity?

We have been brainstorming ideas about ways to help people define their professional identity. If this whole concept of an identity independent of your present position appeals to you, please drop us a note at MyIdentidy@TransformingIT.org. We want to hear your ideas and why you think it is important.

Finally, I am no longer that guy whose hands were shaking years ago when I lost my position at AT&T. If you check my LinkedIn profile, you will see that I now think of myself as a "Transformational Leader, Change Agent, and Writer and Speaker," which has nothing to do with my current position. It took a long time to get here, but I am glad that I made the journey.

About the Author

John Palinkas is a partner at The IT Transformation Institute. He has spent more than three decades in the IT services industry, working with industry leaders like AT&T, AT&T Solutions and British Telecom. He has led numerous multimillion dollar, multiyear outsourcing and service-delivery engagements for dozens of Fortune 500 firms. He has extensive experience and expertise in IT transformation efforts, outsourcing analysis, M&A integrations and service implementations. John serves on the executive committee for NJ SIM Chapter, the leadership team of NJ itSMF LIG, and is a regular contributor to CIO InsightHe can be reached via email at John.Palinkas@TransformingIT.org, and you can follow him on Twitter via @jpalinkas.

To read his previous CIO Insight article, "A Geek's Guide to the Customer Service Experience," click here.

This article was originally published on 04-09-2014