A reader writes:
After spending about a year in a post-college entry-level position, I was recently terminated from a new job that I'd hoped was going to be a major step forward in my career. (We're talking a nearly 35 percent pay raise and an operation three or four times bigger than where I started.)
I'll spare you the gory details, but it will suffice to say that my former bosses admitted that my work ethic had been satisfactory and a lack of effort was not the problem. Rather, there was a discrepancy between the level of guidance I had hoped would support my continued growth and the amount of time my former bosses expected direct supervisors to have to spend actually working with me. At the very least, I'm clear that one of my mistakes was not asking the right questions in the interview process to understand what I was getting myself into.
Nevertheless, my question is what this means going forward. I'm just as confident in my talent as I ever was, but less so in my unseasoned ability to translate that into results. Still, I'm concerned that going back to an entry-level position could set back my career and leave prospective future employers questioning why I couldn't stay on a bigger stage. Should I take the assessment of my former bosses to mean that I need more time to grow in an entry-level position, or should I try to focus on re-acquiring a sort of "second step" job again (better armed with the first experience this time)?
It sounds as though your employer was looking for someone who could step into the job with little training (presumably aside from the usual training specific to the company, which one would give even the most seasoned veteran in his or her first weeks). That's not unusual on its face.
So, the question that naturally arises from your note is: Would a reasonable person considering you for the job have believed that you could step into the job and succeed with only a modicum of training? Would your skills and past experience make this a reasonable proposition, or would a company have to have taken a massive leap of faith to proceed this way?
If the answer is "massive leap of faith," the company owed it to you to say something at the outset like: "We're taking a big leap of faith here. Normally we'd look for someone with more experience in x, y, and z, but we think you have enough potential that you're going to be able to overcome your lack of experience and do well. But because of the experience gap, you're going to need to spend extra time learning the industry and how we do things. Here are some suggestions for where to start." Then you'd know what you were getting into and how much help (if any) you could expect from them. You'd also have the chance to consider whether you even wanted to take a job that was likely to be more than the usual challenge.
Now, if the answer is not "massive leap of faith" and instead a reasonable person would have assumed you would thrive in the job without significant training and guidance (based on your resume and interview), then we have a different situation on our hands. In that case, I'd ask you this: What sorts of things were you looking to your boss for help with? How often? How much time did you need of theirs in an average week? Were you looking for confirmation that your approach was the right one, or were you unsure of what that approach should even be? If you were being asked to make judgment calls in a way that was new to you (likely since you're early in your career), were you simply uncomfortable doing so because that was new ground for you, or were you uncomfortable doing so because you truly felt unqualified to do it? (Please feel free to write back or post in the Comments section if you want to answer any of this slew of questions!)
It's possible you were an extremely conscientious employee who misread the signals your boss was sending you about how autonomous you should be. It's also possible you simply found yourself in a job you weren't quite ready for. In either case, it sounds like you found yourself in a job that required you to exercise more independent judgment than you felt comfortable with.
Here's what I can tell you for sure: Many employers will want you to tackle the job without significant guidance or training (and the ones that will be willing to invest more time in training you should discuss this up front). So when you're interviewing for new positions, this is a great question to explore in the interview. Ask what kind of training they envision, how much autonomy they'd like the person to have, what sort of learning curve they expect, even what kinds of backgrounds their most successful employees have brought to that position in the past. You'll get a good idea of whether you'd be comfortable moving forward.
The fact that you're considering this question bodes well, in my opinion. Good luck!