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Knowing When It's Time To Go

 December 03, 2012 10:19 AM


Do I wake up excited to start the day? Am I frustrated by the dumb things I do that I know I can - and should - do better? Can I feel myself learning, growing and developing in my role? Is there a sense, a hard to put into words but a know-it-when-I-feel-it sense that I'm making progress towards my career and life objectives? These have long been the hallmarks of roles in which I'm both personally and professionally fulfilled. But when one or more of these drivers are not at play, I've found myself restless and ready to disrupt the status quo and to find my next challenge. Having the foresight to know when I've started stagnating has led me to make some bold and aggressive moves in my career - on my terms. One thing is for sure: if you are coasting in your job, lacking passion and the drive to succeed, Mr. Market will find you and disrupt your career - and not on your terms. Do not let this happen to you.

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Career management doesn't just happen; it requires planning, effort and self-awareness. I'd argue that this is more important now than ever, as job security has become fleeting and employment by larger companies with richer benefits is generally contracting, not expanding. This renders career planning akin to a software release cycle: prioritize the development pipeline; build and release features; collect customer feedback; iterate in the wake of hard data and reset priorities (and therefore the dev pipeline). We've all become the VP Engineering of our own careers. Managing multiple constituencies (Sales, Product and Development) with an eye towards shipping the best product - the one with the features customers value most. Get lazy on the job, slack off of managing even one of these key relationships, and the whole system breaks down. 

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Regardless of role, seniority or stage of career, I'd suggest that everyone ask themselves these hard questions on a periodic basis:

  • Am I learning? If not, plan how to move into a new role at your current organization or consider looking outside for new opportunities. Not learning sucks. Unacceptable. Time to move on.
  • Do I feel good about what I'm doing? Learning is great, but if you feel ambivalent about what you're doing the situation is not long-term stable. As long as you are building your skill sets, experiences and networks, ok. But without true passion for your mission, you should begin thinking about either a functional or organizational change. 
  • Does my role fit with my long-term objectives? Careers leverage our cumulative experiences as well as our hopes and dreams. You can be learning and feel good about your current role, but if staying in that role isn't going to help you move forward towards your long term objectives than you need to be disciplined about deciding when it's time to move on.
  • Is my job meeting my short-term needs? Not everybody has the luxury of optimizing for the above when there are very real financial and geographic considerations that often come into play. Student loans? Children? Dependent parents? Whatever. Life happens, much of which is beyond our control. So while the questions above should always be kept in mind, sometimes the fact is that sacrifices have to be made to simply cope with reality. But proactively managing career through learning, the advice of mentors and outside activities can be done regardless of the situation. Just do it.
  • When I look at myself in the mirror do I like what I see? This fuzzy litmus test is helpful for cutting through the BS and self-rationalizations that plague even the most introspective and intellectually honest of us. Sometimes things look good on paper and sound good when we tell other people, but when we look back at ourselves and can't fake that smile, you know something's up. Time to speak to a mentor, a career coach, someone who can serve as a trusted sounding board to help you get to the bottom of what's really going on. It is often too painful to let the truth in, whether it's disappointment with one's career trajectory, perceived appreciation at work or finding oneself in a job that others think is great but you do not. Shake things up. Get some help. Do not accept simply muddling through.

Subjecting yourself to regular self-review is a challenging and often frustrating task. However, the the rewards of imposing this discipline are many: clearer thinking about your job and career management; plans and actions for moving forward, not simply marking time; bringing others in to help you achieve your objectives and avoiding going solo; and knowledge of where you really stand in the one person's eyes that really matter - yourself.

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