We’ve all had to navigate career decisions at one time or another, and those kinds of decisions are never easy. For many, careers are one of those things that generally are foundational to our livelihoods, and are the tools by which you support your life and family. More than that, for many, your career is where you will spend most of your time. So given that, its not uncommon for decisions in your career to be fraught with stress and dread.
I know there have been a lot of times in my life, where my wife and I have had to stop and examine our options and decide what the next step will be. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this kind of thing, but I do think that my wife and I have developed a pretty good process for weighing these options, and I thought I’d share some thoughts here.
What do I mean by “Career Decisions”?
So before we go any further, I think its worth taking a step back and defining terms. What do I mean by “Career Decisions”? For me, a career decision is a decision on a current or next step in your career. And ultimately where you see things going next. Some examples of these kinds of decisions are:
- Do I take a new position with my current company?
- Do I take a management position?
- Do I change employers?
- Do I change teams?
- Do I move into a new industry?
- Where do I see myself in 6 months, 1 year, or 5 years?
- Do I ask for a raise?
- Do I take on more responsibility?
These kinds of decisions are the kind, that when they come along, can change the course of your career. They affect not just your current situation, but also the next steps and opportunities in the future. And a lot of times, these types of decisions I find can inflict pretty significant “analysis paralysis” (speaking from Experience).
For this blog post I wanted to take a step back and look at some of the things I’ve learned to keep in mind, and consider the alternatives that I’m faced with. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is meant to give you a starting point for these kinds of decisions.
Careers are like sharks, they move forward…or die.
The first part of this discussion, I almost didn’t write here, but it goes to general mindset, and keeping a good frame of mind for ensuring success. If you look at life in general, all living things in this world essentially have 2 states of being, they are growing or they are dying. There isn’t a third option that works. And over my professional career, I’ve come to realize that careers are no different.
When I graduated college, my father looked me and gave me two pieces of career advice, and this is the first.
“A career is like a shark, if it stops moving forward, it dies.”
Now, when I was a kid, I was a shark fanatic, and when I got older and they offered shark week on discovery…that was mandatory television for me every year. For those who haven’t spent countless hours studying sharks as a kid, here’s the basics.
The way a shark’s gills are structured, they have to have water moving through them for the Shark to breathe. Unlike fish, who are able to extract the air from the water even while sitting still. What this means, is that if a shark ever stops moving, it will suffocate.
And in much the same regard, Careers function the exact same way. If you aren’t moving forward, and by that I mean:
- Growing in your knowledge
- Being challenged in new ways
- Learning new skills
- Investigating new ideas
- Embracing change
Then your overall value is diminished as a whole. Think about it this way, take car buying, which is a topic most can relate to. You have two cars in front of you, both owned by different owners.
Honda Accord A: Is a nice car, it runs and will get you from point A to point B. The owner did an oil change about once a year, and it was inspected every year. But that’s all that was done. The interior is stock standard, the seats are faded, the interior is clean but has some stains.
Honda Accord B: Is a nice car, same year as car A. But the owner took it in for regular checkups, oil changes, etc. But in addition the previous owner, upgraded the interior to leather, replaced the stereo system. Upgraded the engine to be more fuel efficient, and other optional improvements.
Now of the two cars, if you are in the market, which would you rather have? And if it was only $5000 more for the second car, would you consider paying more.
At the end of the day, this is largely how employers will view you. The most important fact is that there is a direct correlation between how valuable of a resource you are, and the opportunities you will have. So everything about what you are doing in your career now feeds the future and that value.
When you are presented with a new opportunity / decision, it’s ok to take “some” time to think?
In my experience, no one should ever put you on the spot, and that’s just bad business etiquette. It is 100% reasonable to take some time to think about any major changes you are planning to make. This is your life and you have a right to take a breath and think about it.
Now that being said, one thing to be careful of, you have the right to a reasonable amount of time. I once had a situation where I recommended a friend to my current employer, and they made them an offer. And my friend wanted 1 month to make a decision. This caused a lot of frustration with between both parties, as they wanted too long to make a decision. A good rule of thumb I’ve found is to do the following:
- Be transparent with the other person: If you need to talk to your spouse, tell them that. I once had a case where my wife was away for a week and I got presented with an opportunity. I told them, “I would like to talk to my wife, she’s out of town, can I get you an answer next week?”
- Give them an indication when they can expect a response: I never understood the “I’ll think about it” and walk away. It’s very reasonable and easy to give the other person a time frame to expect a reply.
I find that this communication will make it easier on everyone, it gives a clear framing of when responses are coming through. It creates an opportunity for both sides to show respect and courtesy, and if they aren’t willing to do that, it’s another data point in the decision.
Everything has trade-offs… even staying where you are
Now that you’ve been presented with a decision or opportunity, you have to start into thinking about it and making a decision. This is the hard part, and to be honest I do want to take a step and identify the number one mistake I’ve made, and I’ve seen other make in this situation.
When we start looking at the choice, say it’s to take a new job with a new company, we start looking at things like pros / cons, which is a very good thing, and start looking at:
- How much will I make?
- What is the commute like?
- What kind of work will I be doing?
- Is it something I want to do?
- What’s the work life balance?
- How much travel?
But the number one mistake here is that we will fill out that T-Chart and then make a decision based on that alone. But the biggest thing I find is important to understand is that I should do this exercise twice. For the following:
- Pros / Cons of taking the new job
- Pros / Cons of staying where I am
There are trade-offs to staying where you are, and those trade-off should figure into your decision. For example, some questions you should examine when you consider the question of “Should I stay where I am”:
- Is there opportunity for advancement?
- Do I see myself growing if I stay here?
- Does it benefit my family to stay?
- What does my financial growth opportunity look like?
- Will rejecting this impact potential new opportunities?
And these question should be come part of your decision, as to what to do next. Let me give you an example, if you decide to stay at your current position, instead of taking a move that would increase your payment potential. Do that once, not a problem, but due it to often and you’ll find normal raises price you out of moves later. There’s something to be said for a “being a bargain” in job market.
Here’s an example, let’s say for the sake of argument, you have a job that’s “fine”, doing support that makes $40,000 / year. You want to eventually be a developer and move from support to feature work.
NOTE: This is not a commentary on support, I worked support and its a great and challenging profession, and I have friends who have worked in support for their whole careers and are way more successfully then I could ever hope to be.
But if you have your current job, making $40,000 / year, and ever year that you do good work, you get roughly a $1,000 cost-of-living increase.
So not bad overall, and you are working in the background, on side projects and other opportunities to build your skills for your next move to being a developer.
After a few years, your pay scale looks like this:
And now you find out about a developer opportunity, but aren’t sure if the timings write, and they are willing to hire you at $46,000 / year. A little pay bump, and a chance to move over. But you decide the timing isn’t right, and decide not to take it. But you find out that the normal developer salaries in your area are around $47-50,000 / year. If you continue in your current job for 5 more years. Your salary is around $49,000 / year, and you are on the higher end of the salary range, and now are more of a risk to a new employers. The reason I say that is that you don’t have the direct experience that they are going to see from other employers.
Fast forward another 5 years, and you are now priced out and having to consider a pay-cut to move to the job you want.
So there was an unseen cost to staying in the current position, and passing on that opportunity. If you had gone to the development position, you could have grown your experience and made yourself grow faster and had more opportunities available to you.
Now I realize the above has a lot of assumption and is very simplistic, but I do believe it illustrates the point, that the cost of doing nothing, does have a cost, it is not cost neutral.
Money is not the only factor
Now I realize this is an odd segue given the above discussion, but one of the things my wife and I do when we consider career moves and decisions is to make a list and leave off the financial component. At the end of the day, there are a lot of elements to a career other than the financial component, and honestly if finance is your only motivation, its going to make for a pretty miserable existence.
This relates to the other elements of the job, things like:
- Does the job require travel (could be a good thing or a bad thing)?
- Will this help me grow?
- What new opportunities will this move afford me?
- What is work life balance going to be?
I once had a person interview to work on my team at a previous company, and he took the week to think about the employment offer as he had a competing offer. On Monday, the next week, he came back and took our offer and weeks later confided in me that it was at lower pay. When I asked why he gave the most eye opening answer.
That Friday night, at 6pm, he went to both places of employment to see how many cars were in the parking lot, and every night that weekend. The other employer while offering more money, had the same cars in the parking lot all week and most of the weekend, people leaving at 7-8pm at night after 12-14 hour days. Which was a really amazing observation, while our offer was lower, everyone went home to their families most nights.
How does this set me up for the future?
Another key question, that I learned very early on in my career is that you should always take a step back and ask yourself this question. Everything you do in your professional life is a part of a portfolio of work that can open up new opportunities in the future. That’s why its important to make sure that the things you are doing, are ultimately building that portfolio.
So let’s talk an example here, if I’m going back to that example (which was me at one point). You work in a support job, and you want to become more of a developer, and you are presented with the choice from above.
If you stay in the support role, the following happen with regard to your next job:
- Learn more about how to work with escalations.
- Continue to learn about the low level details of software applications.
Now if you took the developer job, it would mean:
- Focus on growing my skills as a developer.
- Work on development projects.
- Potential mentors for growing in that space.
I know overly simplistic example, but it makes my point. The idea is here you should have a clear picture of the kind of work you want to do, and make sure that the current job sets you up for the future.
Loyalty is a two-way street
This is the tough one, that I find impacts a lot of decisions for careers, and that’s a sense of loyalty to your current team, employer, manager, company, etc. And I want to stress that loyalty is absolutely important, and something I value very much. Ultimately I find that its the glue that holds a team together. I’ve also personally had a lot of relationships over my career that I would gladly take a bullet for those people.
That being said, I do find too that loyalty is a two-way street and something that should measure into your decisions, but you need to make sure that you are taking care of yourself as well. And sometimes misplaced senses of loyalty can be a very dangerous thing.
At the end of the day, I’m of the belief that there is a responsibility and an “agreement” between yourself and your current employer to do the following:
- Provide growth opportunities
- Provide learning opportunities
- Provide ability to recognize achievements
- Provide a safe and constructive work environment
And then in turn, you as an employee are agreeing to the following:
- Do your best work to achieve the goals and objectives.
- Be a professional and do your part to support the work environment.
- Take advantage of the growth and learning opportunities provided.
Now over the past few years I’ve always tried to have very open discussions with my managers around these items on a regular basis. The idea being that they should get a return on their investment in me, and I should get a return on my investment in them.
And then that agreement to me is the foundation of the loyalty with the team I work with.
Now given the above, I do believe there is a certain amount of responsibility from your current employer to provide the best opportunities they can, and I would recommend having an open discussion about those opportunities. Ultimately at the end of the day, if someone is able to offer you a better return on your investment, it should at least be considered.
But I’ve been in scenarios, where I had managers that would “gaslight” their team into a misplaced sense of loyalty that convinced them t hat considering leaving was an “act of treason.” And those kinds of things can be avoided pretty easily if you think of this in investment terms.
If you’re the smartest person in the room, find a new room.
I mentioned at the top of this post, that my father gave me two pieces of career advice when I graduated. And this is the second. The most important thing to remember is that you must grow for your career and ultimately you need to be challenged. And if you are the smartest person in the room, you are not being challenged.
There is something amazing, about being in a room where you aren’t the smartest person, and the opportunity to learn new things. A great term a college professor gave for this is “productive discomfort”, which fundamentally is the idea that the only way you grow is by putting yourself into a situation where you aren’t 100% comfortable.
It’s very much akin to the idea of learning to swim, my son who stands 3 feet tall, can’t learn to swim in 12″ deep water. There’s no challenge that forces him to push himself, but if we put him in water where he can touch if he needs but is high enough to justify swimming, it might not be as comfortable in the beginning, but it will yield returns.
So as you start to build out your career, one practice that has served me well is to seek out situations of Productive Discomfort to make sure that I push myself in new directions.