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A large investor-owned hospital management company’s financial missteps provide an excellent career management lesson: Don’t wait too long to realize that the game has changed, and when you do decide to act, do not do anything foolish.

game has changedWhen times are good and people are singing your praises it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, that all is well and nothing could go wrong. But the longer you work in a particular position, the greater the risk that you could miss important signs that more challenging times lie ahead. Pay attention.

This particular company that I shall not name to avoid embarrassing the once supremely confident stars who ran the place, saw some troubling signs, decided they needed to act, and then did something really foolish. Succumbing to pressures from a large hedge fund to improve their top-line revenue growth, they bought a competitor that had its own set of financial and ethical challenges. And they overpaid. Those leadership stars were confident that they understood the rules of the game so well that their financial prowess would allow them to quickly turn things around. They could not have been more wrong and over the last 12 months have been working feverishly to dump poor-performing hospitals and shed debt while shareholders experienced an astounding decline in the value of their shares.

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Rule one in managing your career is to be brutally honest with yourself. It is so easy to misread a situation when the good times are flowing and confidence is high, but that is exactly the time to step back and have a great heart-to-heart with your mentor and yourself; tough questions should be involved. This is not the time to allow a potentially dangerous mix of ego and over confidence lead you to a point where you could easily make a bad career move. Sometimes what seems to be the obvious course of action can quickly take you through a career limiting swamp.

Being worried about your future is a bad idea. Your colleagues will pick up on those emotions and that is not a good place to be. Be confident. Execute on your deliverables but be aware that change can pose new threats.

This is not a theoretical discussion in search of reality. During the last 12 months I have seen several examples of this type of career derailment — where executives became complacent and then were forced to scramble to find another position. They ended up making a bad choice. The fact is that the job search process has changed dramatically and the process of finding a new position in a highly competitive market is very demanding. If you are not at your very best, it is easier than you think to make a bad decision.

Most of those executives I met will recover but it will take some time and perhaps one to two more career moves before those executives return to the same level they held before their misadventure.