Is it time for a change?
A few years ago the trajectory of my career collided with several key events in my life: the upcoming birth of my first grandchild, the sale of the business I was actively engaged in, and the death of a close friend after a long illness. Suddenly, the importance of time, and of flexibility, came into sharp focus.
I had an abiding sense of how fast the clock was ticking, and I knew that I wanted — I needed — to make changes in my life.
As I pondered my decisions, I recalled the many times throughout my career when I had coached colleagues and others grappling with similar issues of transition. While each person facing professional change has their own unique circumstances, there are nonetheless some broad themes and questions that inevitably arise when you reach some kind of professional or personal inflection point. Questions like the following:
What’s really happening here, beneath the turmoil? What’s my best move? Is it time to leave? What if I get fired? Should I try to ride out the storm?
I decided to share some of the principles I learned through my own transition — and offer them in the hope that they might help you separate the practical issues you must navigate from the distortions we all feel when our emotions are engaged. (And let’s face it: how could they not be, when so much is up in the air, and our professional reputation and livelihood are at stake?)
Knowing when to leave your job
Stepping back, taking stock, and assessing our careers and the type of professional life we enjoy are of critical importance throughout our careers. (And never more so than in our mid- to late-stage career years, when it’s all too easy to get “stuck” — precisely when time is most precious.)
So how do you decide it’s time to leave? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I (still) value and believe in my work – do I still feel a sense of purpose?
- Is there a clear and sustainable growth opportunity for me here?
- Am I valued for my skill set and contribution? Has anything changed on that score?
- If not, do I need to move on and find a more suitable position with a company that values or requires my competencies?
- Am I dreaming of an environment that aligns better with my interests? Or, maybe even stepping off the track and doing something different?
The decision on whether to leave can be as murky as it is fraught. But remind yourself: if we are brutally honest, take stock, and ask ourselves the right questions, the answer will be right there, in front of us. In fact, there are often flashing red lights that we miss. For instance:
- A pattern of being passed over for promotion or opportunities that you had sought. Especially ones where you believe your skill set and interests are an excellent match, yet you are not considered.
- Being silenced or made invisible. You are no longer invited to key meetings, or planning sessions, where you once had a role. Your work is not recognized or acknowledged or your opinion on key issues is not valued, or even sought.
- A lack of investment in your future. There are special training programs that you are not considered for, there is no discussion around career path momentum, etc.
- Getting “layered down.” Companies, particularly large or growing ones, reorganize often. During a reorg, if you find yourself reporting down a level, you’re being layered down — and it’s a signal.
- Passed over for RSU/option grants — particularly if you had received them in the past.
These are clear signs coming from the outside that there is a growing disconnect between your professional expectations and how you are actually being seen and valued.
But perhaps the most significant signal that it’s time to leave is internal: a realization that the work is no longer compelling, you are no longer learning and growing, and you’ve lost the passion you once had for it.
Negotiating your exit strategy
Let’s assume you have decided that, yes, it is time to leave. There are some specific do’s and don’ts you should follow in negotiating your way out. You will find that these negotiations are every bit as crucial as the ones you had when you first were hired — so try to keep these guidelines in mind at all times:
- Remember, this is business. Leaving is often fraught with emotion — not only during the decision-making process, but also through the exit itself. Life is changing; routines, colleagues, patterns are being upended. Still, keep in mind, it’s not your family, it’s not a divorce: it’s simply business.
- Get over the anger. Yes, sometimes we are angry, upset, or even hurt about the circumstances that led to this decision. Although anger can be a healthy emotion, in this situation, it can be distracting and wasteful. So leave it at the door!
- Remain dignified at all times. It is critical that you focus on the issue at hand, remaining smart and thoughtful about negotiating your exit. Always, always remain dignified, never lose your temper, or wear any emotions on your sleeve.
- Know what you want. Keep in mind that negotiations require flexibility and acute listening — both to yourself, and to your employer. To be effective from the start, you must know with absolute clarity what is “non-negotiable” and where there is room to move. Make a list, revisit it, and don’t veer off track.
- Engage an independent voice. Seek someone you can discuss this with — a trusted friend, preferably someone who is more senior to you — someone who can dispassionately talk and (if needed) walk you through it.
- Have legal help available, if needed. As you work to unwind a situation that’s coming to a close, keep in mind that a lawyer may be needed at some point. But don’t brandish one as a weapon. To the extent that you can, keep her or him in the background, preferably as a sounding board.
- Remind yourself: It’s only a problem to solve — and all problems are solvable.
If you manage to follow these key principles, you will not burn any bridges, you will maintain relationships often built over long periods of time — and you will ensure a more positive path forward.
You might even (as I did) find, in time, that this change was the best thing that could have happened to you.