Out of all the places I worked, IBM made the biggest impression on me,” says Dwayne Crawford of his first job out of school. Today, as chief operating officer of 100 Black Men of America Inc., Crawford admits he runs the nonprofit much the same way he managed branch managers and sales reps when he worked at The Bank of New York and ADT.
“IBM was like a finishing school to becoming an executive at that time. I emulated the senior reps, watching how they dressed, conducted themselves, and handled certain business deals in order to find my pattern.”
Research shows that we are most affected by our early career experiences: the time period from post-graduation through our thirties. “You come in like a blank slate. This is an impressionable time. You are like a sponge and easily influenced by other people,” says Monica Higgins, a Harvard Business School professor and author of Career Imprints: Creating Leaders Across an Industry.
Organizational career imprints consist of four dimensions: Capabilities are the skill sets that we obtain as a result of working at a company. Connections refer to the kinds of social capital or relationships we pick up at an employer. Confidence refers to the specific kinds of efficacy we develop to get work done. Cognition refers to the assumptions, beliefs, and worldviews that we acquire as a result of working for a particular employer.
According to Marlon Cousin, managing partner of executive search firm The Marquin Group in Atlanta, the career imprint on an employee from a company such as Procter & Gamble can prove to be very valuable to another organization that may not have the personnel or money to train employees at that level. “It takes about five years before you become what I call a P&G’er,” explains Cousin. “These employees are very methodical, thorough, and detail-oriented. They’ve been trained this way. When they come to another organization, they bring that methodology with them.”
Trying to transfer capabilities to an incompatible new environment can make it seem as though an employee lacks skill. “Most people don’t fail because they are incompetent; they fail because they don’t get the [new] imprint,” says Cousin. They believe that what was successful in their prior company will produce the same results in a new workplace.
HERE’S HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR CAREER IMPRINT:
Examine your history. As you assess the corporate cultures of your previous jobs, be certain to factor in the “era” of that experience. If you started your career in a nonrestrictive, free-minded environment during the ’60s or even the ’80s and have never left that environment, you may be faced with huge adjustments as you look for employment in a larger, more conservative company, says Timi Gleason, executive coach and teacher at the Career Coach Institute. Times change and so do corporate environments.
Compatibility is key. Whether someone will successfully fit into a company comes down to their imprint, says Cousin. “People tend to work with people they like and trust,” he explains. If you’re applying to an organization where there is already a strong career imprint in place, you need to determine whether it’s compatible with yours or if you can make the adjustment.
Be flexible. “Realize that you may be walking around with unnecessary filters that would preclude you from being happy in a new company,” says Gleason. If you were hired, clearly they think you can perform. “But maybe your interaction style isn’t appropriate, so you want to do the same thing but in a different way,” suggests Higgins. Some of your behaviors may simply require fine-tuning.