A friend of mine called me the other day to wish me a happy new year and catch up on each other’s lives. Her voice was filled with excitement. “You know how I’ve been thinking about changing jobs for a long time but I never had the courage to take the leap? Well, now I did it! I finally resigned.” “Congratulations!”, I replied. “And where will you go?” “I don’t know yet.” “What do you mean, you don’t know yet? You left a well paying job, a promising career and you don’t know where you’re going next?”. “I’ll figure it out.” She said. “I need a change and, besides, New Year, New Career! I know something will pop up.”
The creative and free spirit in me praised her spontaneity and her trust in the alignment of the stars. Our need to express our creative self through what we do and who we are means letting go, making mistakes, taking wrong turns that miraculously turn out to be our greatest achievements. At the same time, my other less adventurous personas, the ones influenced by my HR and coaching experience, were less enthusiastic. Not about the decision itself, but about the lightheartedness of the approach.
I’m not referring to having a detailed plan of what is next. I’m not a fan of plans. I am a BIG fan though of having a vision and a sense of direction. When you have that clear in your mind, and when you can feel it in your gut and body, then your brain and neurology will lead you there. Not directly perhaps, and not in the way you would like it, but our unconscious can be a better guide than our conscious mind, which speaks too much and listens too little.
So besides wishing my friend a fabulous new year filled with joy, health and success, I encouraged her to make the most of the time off from work, enjoy the break, and follow her heart. Before closing the call, though, I asked her to set only one milestone: a date by when she will have figured out her direction of travel. This doesn’t mean discover her life purpose. This simply means figuring out what is the next best stop in her professional journey. She may come to the conclusion that she does not want to go back to what she knows and is comfortable with but rather embrace a very different path. Whatever her decision may be, having a direction of travel, knowing where she wants to go, what new LandSpaces, as I like to call them, she wants to explore, will give her a sense of purpose and will make her feel useful. She enthusiastically accepted the challenge and we agreed to reconnect in six months’ time.
Watch the Signs!
Regardless of the “New Year, New Career” resolution, at some stage in your professional life, you will take a closer look at where you are, what you are doing, and reflect if this still makes sense for you. It may not be at the beginning of a new year, like it was for my friend. It may be when you walk out of a useless and energy consuming meeting; or when you feel frustrated with the hundredth version of the same power point presentation that is still not good enough; or when your boss acknowledges your presence like she acknowledges wall paper; or when life throws one of those unexpected curve balls at you and forces you to change course.
These moments will happen. And more than once. This is inevitable as our professional lives get longer and more unpredictable. In a 30 to 40 year career span, we can expect to change jobs at least every 2 to 3 years, change companies at least 4 to 5 times, and take breaks along the way (sabbaticals, parental leaves etc). So we will have our moments! Yet few people take the time to step back, reflect, and see what this means for them until it’s too late; either because someone will take a decision for them or because their health (mental or physical) will force them to think differently.
Here are some signs you need to keep an eye on:
- you can’t sleep and keep thinking about work;
- you get moody, erratic and emotional for no reason;
- you complain about the silliest things that never bothered you before (at work and at home);
- you feel you’re putting a lot of energy in what you do for little output and recognition;
- you become envious of your colleagues who you think don’t deserve more money and attention than you;
- you struggle to achieve your goals and feel overwhelmed;
- your colleagues no longer involve you in areas you are responsible for;
- your boss avoids you and you think it’s because s/he’s too busy.
As you are starting out this New Year, do a sanity check and see where you land ! If you tick 4 out of these 8 signals, then it’s time to look at your World of Work differently. If it’s 8 out of 8, you better get some help and make some changes…quickly!
From Hamster Wheels to Peter Principles
Having been in the People and HR business for more than 25 years, I have seen too many people ignore the signs and go around in circles for years on end, with no real sense of direction. One day they wake up from this trance like state, look back and regret not having taken their careers in their hands. This happens regularly even though no one really talks about it openly. It’s what I call the Hamster & Peter Career Path (HPCP). The Hamster Path is no path at all; it feeds you, it keeps you busy and leads you nowhere; the Peter Path is an attractive one filled with hopes of glory and growth, until you hit a dead end. A bit like the beautiful Sirens in the Odyssey that lure the sailors to their demise with their voices.
Between Hamster Wheels and Peter Principles, I’m not sure what’s worse. Truth be told I’m an animal lover and I don’t know many Peters so if I were to choose I would go for the cute furry hamsters. But being on a wheel, wasting a lot of energy without really getting anywhere, must be as frustrating for a hamster as it is for us humans when we are on a treadmill for days on end without seeing any progress. Treadmills are for humans what wheels are for hamsters: an illusion of getting somewhere.
Truth be told, we (like hamsters) sometimes enjoy that. We are fundamentally lazy. We stick to what we know. We enjoy comfort, familiarity and we love our habits! We also seek security. Being able to feed ourselves and our family today and tomorrow, having a nice roof over our heads and being able to enjoy life’s other pleasures besides work are worth the treadmill phenomenon. We are also clever. We see what sometimes can happen to the talented hamsters. They get off the wheel they know so well and, suddenly, someone called Peter comes along. He is quite a nice fellow but can be a bit of a trickster. He gives them an opportunity and a promotion they can’t refuse. So off they go! Our talented hamsters accept the promotion and are super excited about being the chosen ones! After a year or two, Peter pops up again with his set of principles. The main one being, we’re sorry but you have reached your level of incompetence. Houston, we have a problem.
Of course the World of Work is much more complex than that and it would be very short sighted to reduce it to a job, a wheel and a set of principles. I wouldn’t have stayed in corporate HR for as long as I did if I didn’t believe that the work we do, the colleagues we work with, the hardships we face are amazing opportunities to become the best of who we are and discover talents we may didn’t even know we had. So taking time to reflect on where we are, how we feel about what we do and the colleagues we work with, and looking to the future in terms of what could be next, is something we should all be doing at least once a year.
New Year, New Reflections
When people ask me for career advice, the starting point is always what does having a career mean for them. Is it more money? Is it status? Is it responsibility? Is it prestige? Is it impact? Is it pure ambition? Is it proving to others their worth? Is it about the challenge of succeeding? Everyone has a different answer to that question and these answers change in time. What we want at 25 is very different from what we want at 45, 55, 65.
The next question is, what are they willing to sacrifice for it. No matter what people tell you, having a career, progressing in responsibility, making more money, being more visible, having to take difficult decisions, being recognised as either a leader or expert in a given field, comes at a price. Deep down, I’m sure my friend no longer wanted to pay that price. She wanted to get off a path that she was no longer controlling. Hence her New Year, New Career motto!
Once the basics are covered, the following step is to look at what you are good at and what you aren’t good at as well as understanding what gives you energy and what drains your energy. This includes what kind of people inspire you, what kind of environments fuel your spark, what type of cultures resonate with your values. It’s more than what one likes or what one dislikes. It goes deeper than that because often we don’t even know what we like or not until we tested it (a bit like food!), The younger you are, the more you will need to discover what those preferences are and if your talents are aligned to them.
The point here is that managing your career, designing your World of Work, changing paths, and creating new ones are skills anybody can learn. The earlier, the better, as the future and the New Era of Work will require mastery on this topic! The ability to assess what’s important for you, what you’re good at, what you can afford to compromise on, what you cannot afford to compromise on, what fuels you, what drains you and how relevant all of this is for you at a specific moment in time, are foundational must-haves to any design work on your career and professional future. It has to start from within first. The external market is there. The opportunities are there. LinkedIn notifications will alert you on openings. Your network will support you in your next step. So make sure you have taken that deep dive into your inner world and you have alignment of intent, goals and resources before jumping on to new opportunities.
My advice for those who want to take their World of Work in their own hands is:
- embark on change when you need to and want to, not when you’re forced to;
- get the skills needed to manage your career and professional development;
- avoid staying too long in one given path (function, sector, company). The longer you stay, the more difficult it is to pivot and change.
- make sure you have your safety nets: financial, emotional, social. If you don’t, you need to figure out a way to get them. Playing the lonesome hero full of dreams but with empty pockets and no friends, no longer works. Not even in movies!
- mindset is everything: be open to discover new worlds. As someone once said: Do not be afraid of change. Be afraid of not changing.
A Toast to the Future Today
No matter how wonderful your current employer is, no matter how much you love what you do and no matter how much you love your colleagues, taking responsibility for your World of Work is something I encourage everyone to do. It’s like becoming the CEO of the most important assets you have: your talents, your passions, your drive. These are your offerings to the world and surely someone, somewhere, is in dire need of them.
So to my friend and to all of you who feel ready to design and create new paths that are meaningful to you and others, let’s raise our glasses and welcome the future with open, trusting and caring arms.