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Do you know the answer to the one question that could make or break your career?

I recently moved to South Carolina, the Palmetto State. While exploring the low-country of Charleston and upstate Greenville, I encountered this common and important question, “Who are your people?”

Some of you may be thinking, I know my relatives: there is my crazy uncle, my wonderful aunt, my braggadocios cousin, and my loving parents. But there’s another group of people who are probably equally important to your life: your team members, your boss, your clients, and your support staff. These folks represent the organization of people you work with. Have you asked yourself, “Are these your people?” When I have asked myself that question, it has caused me to pause and think. Ultimately, my answer helped me decide whether I should stay or leave an organization. How do you know if your coworkers are your people? In my daily life, I follow a maxim learned from a friend.

She was counseling her son on whom he should date. She told him, "If you don’t see yourself reflected back from the person across the table, you should keep stepping.” Truer words were never spoken. She wanted him to look at the person’s values, education, upbringing, culture, and lifestyle. She then challenged him to determine if those qualities actually complement and enhance his life. Often, having the right partner in life can either make or break you.

This maxim is also applicable to work life. Are you and your values reflected and respected by those across from your cubicle, in the executive suite, or on the shop floor? The key to leadership is having a group of coworkers who support you and your role as their leader. You can only be a leader if your followers accept you in that role.

I knew it was time to leave my last job when my new boss told me I used too many big words and that I sounded like a professor. Now, my boss had an MBA. But at that point I decided something else was going on. My knowledge and expertise clearly made him and others uncomfortable. I also determined I was going to be myself, big vocabulary and all. I chose not to dumb myself down to make other people feel comfortable. It was at the point where I decided to go find my people, where I would be applauded for my knowledge and expertise.

Four years, later I’m exactly where I want to be. I took the back handed compliment to heart, finished my Ph.D., and transitioned to academia. I now immerse myself in a plethora of words, concepts, and scholarship. It’s the most fun I’ve had in years, because I’ve found my milieu and my people. So as you enter the office and look around, determine for yourself, “Are these your people?” Because your answer to that question could indeed make or break you.

Follow Cynthia on Twitter @cm_sims

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