I was recently talking to a very senior executive working for a major multinational corporation who said he was feeling “underwhelmed” in his job. The job he had a few years earlier was as a commercial leader and market-facing CEO for a smaller, but still substantial business. He left that company for what he believed would be a bigger opportunity.
When I asked him why he was feeling underwhelmed, he said he didn’t feel challenged or utilized up to the level of his experience and capabilities. It wasn’t about his title or his compensation; he said those were in line with his expectations. What he had a problem with was his role, his leverage within the company, and the lack of intellectual challenge. He said, “They’re underutilizing me. I am capable of so much more. I can deliver mountains. But they have me shoveling small piles.”
Underwhelmed can be overwhelming
That specific flavor of dissatisfaction is incredibly common in executives at big corporations. I’ve heard that same sentiment hundreds of times during my career as a senior leader. I learned to spot it a mile away. An executive would be hired in from the outside, and during their first year or two, they would begin to experience withdrawal symptoms. They missed the feeling of moving mountains at their previous firm. Now they felt underutilized and underwhelmed. Some thought they were hired to do certain very high-level tasks, but the work that actually fell on them was much less important.
The way most successful executives I’ve known have tried to fight that underwhelm was by really digging into their role. They would summon a great burst of energy, bring an impressive amount of commercial intensity to their work, and get fully engrossed in it. As a result, they would deliver tasks assigned to them quickly. But as soon as the high of accomplishment wore off, they’d be back to feeling underwhelmed.
The worst way to react to corporate underwhelm is to let it affect your work and your attitude in the office. Getting depressed, moping around the halls, showing up late, losing your drive — these are things that can kill your reputation. Don’t fall into that trap.
You cannot beat yourself down too much. If you let yourself feel depressed and sad in the office, it will start to show on your face and in your body language. Others will notice. Your team will notice. They will see this as a weakness exposed. It won’t be inspiring to your team or your stakeholders, and they may begin to question your effectiveness.
Left unchecked, underwhelm often ends with the executive applying for a transfer or leaving the company entirely. I’ve heard more than a few colleagues say, “This isn’t worth it. I don’t want to wake up in the morning and do this anymore. I’m not having fun.”
I believe corporates should form support groups or mentorship programs for their senior teams to share, collaborate, and learn from one another’s experiences. At the time of this writing, there is a popular television series on Showtime titled Billions. It’s about a group of high achievers who run a hedge fund in New York. In the show, lead character Bobby Axelrod understands the need to constantly reprogram his high performers, so he has a full-time, in-house shrink on staff to keep them functioning at the highest level. I am not suggesting corporates rush to hire a full-time therapist, but I am suggesting that staff need someone to chat with and learn from in a safe, collaborative environment.
Pause and step back
If you find yourself suffering from corporate underwhelm, there is a strategy to combat it. That strategy is rooted in something my father used to say to me. “In any bad situation,” he would say, “you can only change yourself. You can’t count on changing the situation or the people around you.” In other words, each of us holds the power to overcome any obstacle by looking inward, not outward.
If you are experiencing underwhelm, the first thing to do is, pause and step back. Do not make rash decisions, such as blaming the employer. I’ve heard too many executives say things like, “It’s the company’s fault this isn’t working out. They’re to blame for my skills being underutilized. They should never have hired me.”
Another rash decision that’s quite common is quitting or looking for another job. What happens if you go through all that trouble to get a different job and within a few months you’re back to feeling underwhelmed again?
After you pause and step back, go back and review your playbook. Did you set goals for yourself that are too low? Maybe that’s why you don’t feel challenged. Can you increase your goals to make them more difficult to reach? Up your aspirations?
Study your playbook and look for hidden opportunities you may have missed. Is there an opportunity for a pivot? Can you recalibrate the playbook and get creative about reaching new or existing goals? That’s what leaders do; they constantly reassess and look for new ways forward. Consider new strategies. Brainstorm innovations. Just the exercise of reexamining your playbook with some of these steps will start to lift the underwhelm.
Remember that you were hired because of your talents and abilities. Just because you’re feeling underwhelmed doesn’t change that. Always carry yourself with regality and confidence — like the lion, no matter how much you may feel like a goat. Your team looks up to you, so always act and behave like someone who deserves their admiration and respect. You have to act like a king if you want to be treated like one.
Vishal Agarwal is the bestselling author of “Give to Get.” As a Senior Leader, he has navigated corporate life for the past 24 years. He has served as a Top Global Executive for General Electric and as a senior leader at Pricewaterhouse Cooper (PwC).
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