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Make Sure Your Career Never ‘Jumps the Shark’

Certain behaviors just about guarantee your reputation will become permanently tarnished.

In the early 2000s, Daniel was a rock star at his advertising agency. He had a reputation for crafting innovative ideas, and his budget would increase year after year. But at some point, he began to ignore market research and the advice of his team, setting his eye on ads that met a certain off-brand artistic standard. After several of these ads were lambasted on social media and sales declined, Daniel soon got the boot.

Daniel is an example of someone whose career “jumped the shark.” Essentially, it went from a place of greatness to a place of irreparable damage. The phrase itself references an episode of the ’70s TV show Happy Days where one of the characters literally jumps over a shark while water skiing; in viewers’ minds, it was a sign that the once-popular show had totally lost its way.

When you repeatedly engage in behavior your boss disagrees with, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.

In most work, reputation is everything, and when it’s gone, careers end. This goes for everyone up to the CEO: a study that tracked CEO successions found that 43% of CEOs who had been ousted weren’t hired again. Here are some ways to avoid jumping the shark at work.

Know the trends, but remember the guiding lights.

Great employees know the value of pushing in new directions. But when leaders pursue what’s shiny and new, without thinking about whether it’ll really benefit the company’s purpose, careers can derail. “An idea may be good and great but if your company isn’t buying into it, at a certain point it’s kind of being bull-headed to continue pushing,” says Val Olson, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. Melanie, a professional at an e-commerce firm, wanted to implement the messenger bot trend a few years ago, to prove to higher-ups she was using cutting-edge technology. But she didn’t explore whether such a service would be something customers would want. When customers were left frustrated by the bot, it took years for Melanie to regain the trust of her organization.

Know whom to prioritize.

In our tech-driven, hyper-connected world, determining priorities has become a lot more complicated. It’s possible that you may have one boss on paper, but several people or teams to report to all day. When you don’t have a clear map in your head of whose priorities come first, and fail to get back to important people in a timely manner, you run the risk of damaging your reputation. “If someone asks for a favor and you don’t have capacity, loop in your manager,” says Caroline Werner, senior vice president of global talent for Korn Ferry. “Or say, ‘I’d love to do that, but now isn’t great timing. Let me think of some people who might be able to help you.’”

Don’t circumvent the chain of command.

It can be tempting, in an attempt to curry favor with higher-ups, to want to leap to make sure your boss’s boss is aware of what’s going on—and not just from the point of view of your boss. But this can backfire if you don’t first try to work with your managers. When Danny, who was hired to streamline a financial services firm’s tech operations, was repeatedly ignored by his counterpart in the IT department, he complained to a top finance executive without first going to his direct managers. Not long after, he was given a lateral transfer to a different department. “It was clear this was as far as I was going to go in this organization,” he says. He ended up taking a job at another company.

Recognize when you shouldn’t be the disruptor.

Great leaders know the value of disruption. But when you repeatedly engage in behavior your boss disagrees with, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. “It’s important to read the room and understand how you’re being perceived,” Olson says. “Looking for subtle interpersonal clues can help you realize if you’ve gone down the wrong road.”

Mary Abbajay, president of the executive coaching and organizational consulting firm Careerstone Group, once had an employee who only checked her emails once a day, despite being asked to prioritize answering email. When a week went by after one such warning, without any change in the employee’s behavior, Abbajay decided to let her go. “She’d jumped the shark in my book,” she says.

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