Institutionalized: Working for the Corporate Version of Obi-Wan Kenobi/Bill Belichick

Kris Dunn Business Development, Career Advice, Career Paths, Coaching, Communication, Culture, Employee Coaching, Employee Communications, Employee Development, employee experience, Employment Branding and Culture, Leadership, Learning and Development, Managing People, Pop Culture, Sports, Talent Management 8 Comments

There’s a dirty little secret about great companies. Some of them are so great, the experience you pick up actually doesn’t transfer easily to other opportunities.

Here’s how this phenomenon plays out:

1– You join a great company early in your career.

2–You are fortunate to work for a master, think the Obi-Wan Kenobi or Bill Belichick of your industry.

3–The master sees your potential. He/She brings you into the secret society of how the sausage gets made.

4–You are incredibly successful, receiving 2-3 promotions in the span of a decade while the master also experiences great success.

5–The master absolutely owns the organization you work for. People are scared of him/her, so the way you want to do things is the way that they are done. The success creates a bubble of zero interference and you and the master are welcome to become as dysfunctional as you want, and you never have to deal with political realities that other people in your industry do. Just as importantly, you become great at what you do – both individually, and as a system.

6–You look up and a decade has gone by. Then, the day comes. Korn Ferry sources you on LinkedIn (you thought they had secret tools, but no) and puts you up at age 37 for your next big step. The tricky part is you have to leave the fold of Obi-Wan. You take the job, Obi is proud.

7–You go to that big leadership position at another company. It’s hard. You last 18 months before you talk to Obi-Wan about coming back to the mother ship.

Congratulations. You didn’t know it, but you got INSTITUTIONALIZED in your decade with Obi Wan.

What does becoming INSTITUTIONALIZED mean and how does it happen? Being corporately institutionalized means you worked for a master. The master had so much success, he developed a Jedi-like process for how the sausage got made at your company. You and he were like chemists for your industry, and as your success grew, your potion for success grew more customized and borderline manic.

People want what that company has. So they recruited you.

But the problem is this. You worked for the master (Obi-Wan) and he had created an environment that could only exist at your company based on his knowledge and the lack of interference that existed based on the past and continued success.

You thought you could replicate that success. Turns out, you had been INSTITUTIONALIZED. You bristled at the politics of your new organization – you didn’t realize this is normal for the rest of the world. It was hard – so hard, after 18 months you reached back out to the master and asked him to keep an eye open for a spot to bring you back to the ranch.

Now you’re back doing very specific things for the master – things you’re convinced the rest of the world doesn’t understand.

Things are peaceful for now. You and the other inmates wonder how long the master will stay at it. You hope a long time.

It’s ****ing scary out there, away from the mothership. Life with Obi-Wan is better for you.

Kris Dunn

Kris Dunn is a Partner and CHRO at Kinetix, a national RPO firm for growth companies headquartered in Atlanta. He’s also the founder Fistful of Talent (founded in 2008) and The HR Capitalist (2007) – and has written over 70 feature columns at Workforce Management magazine. Prior to his investment at Kinetix, Kris served in HR leadership roles at DAXKO, Charter and Cingular. In his spare time, KD hits the road as a speaker and gives the world what it needs – pop culture references linked to Human Capital street smarts.

Comments 8

  1. I’m not sure I buy that. I’d say that if you were institutionalized because you worked for a master at one given company, and were unable to adapt or shift or change to another position somewhere else, then that’s really your own fault and shows a deficiency in your professional character.

    The most successful people are the ones who can shift, adapt, and pivot no matter what. More so, they’re able to apply what they’ve learned to their new capacities while adapting at the same time. They don’t allow themselves to be institutionalized, and if they do become institutionalized, they know how to break out of that mold.

  2. Kris Dunn Post

    Hi Keith –

    I get what you are saying. But you’re really saying that people shouldn’t be institutionalized, and that the best people don’t allow themselves to be conditioned in this way. I get that, but what I’m saying is different. I’m saying good people who have a large block working for a master often can’t find success in a world that doesn’t offer the same conditions as the environment they grew up in.

    It starts at a decade with the same company. Once you get there and beyond, the odds of becoming less relevant and adaptable elsewhere grow pretty rapidly.

    What you’re saying is true. But for many, what I’ve outlined is the norm in the talent market.


  3. I can totally see this…and I really feel the part about hoping Obi-Wan hangs around for a long, long time…the time I have left with my own Obi-Wan is ticking away, and it makes me feel more than a little panicked.

    1. Kris Dunn Post

      Hey Jenn –

      If you’re concerned you’ve been institutionalized, you’re halfway home to not having a problem. You’re going to be OK, kiddo…


  4. Great article.

    Since you brought up Belichick, thus including a sports metaphor, I would only add that in lieu of being Institutionalized, I think talent will sometimes luck out and find an organization that maximizes their particular mix of talents. This can happen through blind luck, the candidate seeking out the organization that fits their work style, or the organization knowing exactly what talent mix they need.

    Other times they might not get so lucky. Either the organization finds a talented individual, but doesn’t recognize their style isn’t a fit. Or the talent doesn’t do their own diligence.

    I don’t think this makes the talent, less talented. I don’t think it makes the talent institutionalized. It’s possible they can find an organization that maximizes their skills in just the same way.

    I would argue that Belichick is the master of knowing exactly what talent fits his game plans. A lot of sports organizations (including colleges) do this very well. But still many do not. Many go after big names, or see a player’s success at another team and assume it will transfer. The player arrives and there is no drastic improvement to the team, or the player doesn’t put up the same performance.

    Does this mean the player isn’t talented? Should a player adapt to the team, or should the coach/GM adjust the team’s style to fit the new player? Both of these could have consequences. Or is it possible it was just a poor decision to sign the player and it’s better to cut losses.

    That said, I think what you are referring to as Institutionalized is really just poor talent assessment or decision making.

    For an exercise…let’s look at Draymond Green. Is he an All-Star? Will he sign with a new team in free agency and have equal or greater success? Or is he just perfectly used in the Warriors system, so all his talents are highlighted? Or does he just have the benefit of being surrounded by great players?

    Would you say he is Institutionalized?

    1. Hey Logan – so true! Sometimes, what I call institutionalization is just a great fit – and nothing more. Once we get away from the sports stuff and land in corp America for comparison’s sake, a lot of it has to do with our self-awareness of how good we have it if we’ve found that fit.

      Some options:

      1. The master is the secret – obi wan made you a lot better than you would have been, and protected you from all kinds of BS. You’re OK, but not great. It’s 50/50 whether you thrive on your own.

      2. You’re good to great and just happened to be with a master who understood what worked in his system. You can figure it out elsewhere, even without the master.

      3. You’re average or less, and the master is the secret sauce. You’ve probably been institutionalized and probably can’t thrive in a leadership spot on your own.

      1. Yes, self-awareness!

        Do you know why you were successful? How much of your recent success is because of you vs the team vs that secret sauce?

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