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CEO Insider

The Mouse in the Maze

Chris Fontanella

To what can we compare the framework of work? To what is “work-life” analogous? One comparison that comes to mind is a maze. Making your way through your work world is, in many ways, like meandering through a maze. And in case you’re wondering, you’re the mouse within it. 

Each day you hasten through your personal work maze looking for “the cheese,” rewards for all your time and effort. Like all mice, you are lured by the aroma of cheddar (i.e., greenbacks, moolah, the big bucks, cabbage, bacon, simoleons, clams, and dead presidents, or perhaps a more understanding boss, a less stressful situation, or a role that better aligns with your career aspirations). Natural impulses take over and you scurry here and there in search of the seductive scent. Its fragrance fascinates nasal passage and its smell titillates your instincts. Deep down every mouse only cares about cheese. It’s all a mouse really wants—scrumptious, delicious, savory cheese. 

Who Moved My Cheese?

Years back, Dr. Spencer Johnson wrote a quaint tale entitled Who Moved My Cheese? about a hungry foursome—Sniff, Scurry, Hem, and Haw. They get lucky and hit the mother lode and find the cheese of their dreams, what they assume to be a lifetime supply. Overjoyed with their discovery, they nibble and nosh until their bellies are full, then return home squeaking about their good fortune. Naturally, they developed a habit of returning to the station where they first found the cheese, thinking it would be there every day. Until the day it was not. The cheese was moved; not one shred could be found in the usual location. 

These ‘lab rats” had to decide what to do. Do they keep returning to the original place of their discovery, hoping cheese will be placed there again and again, or do they venture out, searching the maze to find a new batch? 

Spencer’s mice each respond differently. Sniff and Scurry laced up their shoes and went on the hunt again, while Hem and Haw stayed put and hemmed and hawed about their lack and absence of cheese. 

The parable highlights two truths: circumstances change, and survival depends on your ability to adapt. Each reader of the story must determine what type of mouse they are; one that recognizes change and is willing to adapt or one that does not. 

Nothing Stays the Same

In today’s workplace, nothing stays the same. You can never feel 100% settled; at any time, an unexpected, unplanned for event can occur. Behind the scenes, management may be discussing a merger, an acquisition, a divestiture, a leveraged-buyout, or a takeover—all with the potential to trigger a life-altering, unanticipated moment in your life. Don’t take it personally. Business clouds drop rain on everyone. 

Far from a unique course of action, employers move cheese all the time. They regularly make decisions that impact employees: they downsize the company (make the maze smaller); they acquire other companies (make the maze bigger); they consolidate operations (and in the process eliminate redundant mice); and sometimes they just decide you’re not the right mouse for the job (e.g., you’re a Mickey, but they need a Minnie, or vice versa). Which is why you must accept that circumstances within an organization change and then adapt accordingly. Don’t wait for them to put cheese back where you first found it. They won’t! 

What the Smart Mouse Does (The Three R’s for Rat Race Survival)

Accepting the reality of a situation does not make you helpless. There are things you can do to be as prepared as possible. I recommend the following: 

  1. Do your best to READ THE TEA LEAVES, which is to say, keep your eyes open for signs of what will happen in the future. While you have no control over what may or may not come your way, you can pay attention to what is happening around you for clues (i.e., workforce reduction, talk of moving the company HQ to another state, change in leadership, etc.). Wise employment mice keep their eyes peeled and do their best to interpret any changes they sense.
  2. When change happens—your job gets eliminated or relocated, for example—use that time to REASSESS and REVIEW your situation. If you ignore changes and developments at work, or the macro-economic conditions in the broader market, or what your gut has been telling you because you’ve been reading the tea leaves, you may be destined for bigger problems. Size up the situation as best you can and…
  3. REACT to what is happening. Be Sniff and Scurry; don’t be Hem and Haw. If, for whatever reasons, your cheese gets moved, respond. Wishful thinking will not help. Deal in reality not fantasy. Think about concrete steps you can take. Update your resume, touch base with your network and let them know you are open to new opportunities, and apply for roles that interest you. Do not hesitate to act.

What Happened When My Cheese Got Moved

Immediately after I was informed (no need to read the tea leaves this time) that my job at the bank was being relocated from California to Minnesota, I returned to my office and looked in the Want Ads (back in the day that’s how you found out about open positions) to learn about job openings. I had spent a few minutes reviewing my new situation and quickly decided moving was not an option. Then I called the phone numbers listed on several job advertisements. Within a couple hours I had an interview scheduled with a branch manager at one of the largest staffing firms in the country. I interviewed soon after and got a job as a business development professional with that company. That job spring boarded me into another role working with a subsidiary of a BIG 4 accounting firm, which, a couple of years later, filed for an Initial Public Offering. A few years later, I left that company and started my own firm, and a couple of years after that, I sold it to a national consulting firm. I have since started another company. But it all started with being told my job was being relocated to Minnesota, a job that was still mine if I wanted to live in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. 

The Moral of My Story (and Maybe Yours)

Every employee is likely to reach a point in his or her career when changes arise and decisions need to be made in relation to them. Future vocational outcomes are often contingent on how one chooses to respond. The smart mouse in the maze recognizes changing circumstances and finds knew pathways through it.

Written by Chris Fontanella.
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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Insider - The Mouse in the Maze
Chris Fontanella
Chris Fontanella is the founder of Encore Professionals Group, a professional services firm specializing in the identification and placement of accounting and finance candidates in temporary and full-time positions. He previously served as Division Director for Robert Half International and Client Service Director for Resources Global Professionals. Prior to entering the staffing industry, Fontanella spent years studying theology and preparing for ministry, having received his bachelor of arts degree in New Testament Studies from Oral Roberts University, and his master of arts degree in Theological Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Jump-Start Your Career: Ten Tips to Get You Going, and Tune Up Your Career: Tips & Cautions for Peak Performance in the Workplace.

Chris Fontanella is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website CLICK HERE.