Thursday, June 30, 2011

How Your Childhood May Affect Your Career

My mother had a stroke when I was 13-years-old and was paralyzed on her left side. While she regained some use, she had a constant numbness on her left side from the waist up for the rest of her life. At that time, she did her best to be the strong mother she had always been, but things changed. In many ways, I became the parent because she simply couldn't do the things -- emotionally or physically -- that she had before.

I know that the experience of my mom's illness changed my life. I know that while I was a serious 13-year-old, I became even more so after that time. My family teased me that I was born 40-years-old, but really taking on adult responsibilities after my mom's stroke made that more of a reality than a joke.

I did this column for Gannett/, and came away with a deeper understanding of how my childhood has affected the way I view work, the path of my career, etc. It may do the same for you....

Were you a child who assumed a mature role in your family at an early age because of a circumstance such as a parental illness?

Or were you the kid who could barely get a word in edgewise and had to fight to be heard?

We all have unique circumstances, but those younger years could be what now cause you problems in the workplace, says Maggie Craddock, an executive coach and author of Power Genes: Understanding Your Power Persona and How to Wield It at Work, (Harvard Business Review Press, $26.95).

  • In her book, she outlines what she calls the power persona, its strengths and the potential problems — or blind spots. She notes that some people may have a combination of these personas, but most people will recognize themselves:

• Pleasers. These are highly intuitive people who are also good listeners, great diplomats and hardworking. But they have trouble advocating for themselves, need outside validation of their work, are extremely loyal and take professional criticism personally. Think Elie Wiesel and Mother Teresa.

• Charmers. Known for being master problem-solvers, powerful change agents and having a finely honed sense of how to influence others, these people are so focused on results that they don't pay much attention to the process. They may overextend themselves and view any emotional vulnerability as a weakness. Such people would beAngelina Jolie and Ivan Boesky.

• Commanders. With a strong will to win, respectful of authority and hierarchy, resilient and self-confident, these people value the system more than the individual. They are intolerant, insensitive, impatient and have tunnel vision. Examples of such people would be Jack Welch and Margaret Thatcher.

• Inspirers. People like Jimmy Carter and Richard Branson are charismatic and visionary and lead by example, treating others as equals. However, they can be politically naive and have trouble dealing with red tape. They focus on strategy over tactics and risk burnout.

Many of these characteristics are developed as children, Craddock says. And knowing your blind spots can help you learn to deal with them more effectively.

For example, if you were a people pleaser because a caregiver was elusive in your young life, then you may have learned to emulate adult behavior early to get attention.

But when you get into the professional arena, you find that you must have approval from others — not always easy in a tough business world full of busy bosses and competitive co-workers.

"You have to learn what your triggers are," she says. "When you're a pleaser, for example, you have to learn to keep things in perspective, to talk to someone you trust from the outside when you need that validation. Just learning to take a deep breath is important."

Craddock, a former mutual fund manager, says that while many people just want to fix the problem they're having with their career and not focus on the distant past, they soon find that not taking time to reflect on their younger years is a mistake.

"Not dealing with a blind spot can cause it to go dormant like a virus," she says. "But it's still there."

A manager constantly criticized for flying off the handle and lashing out at his team may find that he has an ongoing problem — no matter what job or company — that prevents him from achieving his career goals. Only by really delving into his power persona, learning to appreciate his strengths and working to recognize and deal effectively with his blind spots can he achieve the success he desires, Craddock says.

"People often avoid dealing with these issues because they feel there's nothing they can do," she says. "But it's not hard. You can make changes as an adult. ... Not dealing with them is a mistake."

Has your childhood affected your career?


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