Go to Menu The Wall Says
It's Time To Go

By Nick Corcodilos

That Ache Is Your Career Telling You Something
Unfortunately, the act of changing jobs is usually reactionary rather than planned. Most of us are so busy doing our jobs that we simply don't have time to contemplate, much less pursue, a new job with another employer. When we do make a change, it's often because some immediate event forced change upon us. These kinds of events include, but are certainly not limited to, a downsizing, a disagreement with a boss, an unexpected job offer or a failure to get an expected raise.

Until one of these events occurs, we tend to grin and bear surprisingly high levels of discomfort about our careers, our jobs and our future. Consequently, we rarely stop to recognize legitimate "change signals" or to ask the question, "Is it time for me to go?"

If you're experiencing career discomfort, I want to poke you where it hurts so it'll hurt a little more — not to antagonize you, but to encourage you to figure out exactly what's causing it. If you can do that, you might be able to start planning your next career step, before circumstances step on your career.

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The Writing On The Wall
You probably know what I'm talking about. You see the writing on the wall, but like most busy people, you ignore it so you can get on with the daily chore of slaying another dragon at work. But it's time to start reading the signals your career is sending you. If you decide these signals are not so serious and your discomfort is more imagined than real, maybe you'll relax a little and enjoy your job more. If you're in considerable pain, maybe I can help you isolate the specific signal that's tormenting you. Then you can make some specific decisions and take control of your work life.

People tend to go on interviews for the same reason a mountain climber climbs a mountain: because "it's there." Headhunters deal with that by having more than one candidate available for the client. But they also devote considerable effort to helping the candidate isolate the reasons that led him to consider a change. That's how the headhunter develops his "pitch" to sell the position to the candidate. (I don't use that word pejoratively; a pitch can be very honest and sincere.) That is, we play the role of "the shrink," trying to make a connection between the new job and a person's needs and discomforts. Unless we can get into the person's head and figure out what's really bothering him about his job or career, we can't motivate him to consider a new job seriously. It's part of our job to know what the writing on the wall might be, even before we meet the prospective candidate.

Let's look at some examples of the most common writing on the wall. It's up to you to decide whether it represents a compelling reason to consider changing jobs or employers.

The Wall Says: You're the top dog.
You know you're at the top of your game when everyone — including people outside your own department and from other companies — comes to you for help and advice. In itself, this realization might make you want to keep your job rather than leave it, especially if your company recognizes your expertise and supports and rewards you for it.

On the other hand, if your boss treats you like a proprietary asset and restricts your movement in your professional community, it could be a sign that he doesn't know how (or want) to develop you further. Are you allowed to attend professional conferences and mingle with your industry cohorts? Does the company pay for relevant continuing education, or does it discourage you from developing skills beyond your current job?

Likewise, if you feel unappreciated and lonely and you sense that you're held too responsible for the success of projects around you, that's a bad sign.

Like it or not, being needed doesn't make you grow. Living on the pedestal can make you complacent, and it can also make you very bored. If your efforts to expand your expertise and to learn from greater experts meet with resistance, it may be time to go. (If you're not making such efforts on your own, shame on you. You may soon take a tumble.)

The Wall Says: You're on your own.
Every good worker needs a good mentor to guide, promote and pay attention to him. Good people don't keep working for employers who ignore them.

I remember watching a film about Japanese management practices back in the late 1970s. It showed a team of employees toiling away in a bullpen-type office, where there were no walls, no cubicles. Everyone worked out in the open. The only closed office belonged to the manager, and it was surrounded by glass. While his staff worked away, he sat with his feet resting on his desk reading the newspaper. The only time he got up was when an employee came in to ask for help. Then the manager dropped his paper and embraced whatever problem the employee was grappling with.

The narrator pointed out that employees rarely requested help with their actual work. Mostly they needed advice and guidance with larger problems, including career direction and personal challenges. One fellow needed advice about whether to ask a woman to marry him, for example. The thrust of the film was that a manager's job is to be a mentor, and although the manager spends most of the day with his feet up, his role is more important than any work being done in the office. His job is to enable his employees to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure their continuing value to the company.

If there isn't someone in your company who is helping guide your career and professional development, it may be time to go.

The Wall Says: You're ahead of your employer.
Just like product lines and technologies, skills and careers ebb and flow. Sometimes you find yourself thinking ahead of your company, and that can be frustrating. Bear in mind that it takes a corporate body longer to grow and change than it takes an individual. When you're evaluating your company's progress in the industry, what's important is not whether it is always on the cutting edge, but whether the company encourages or squelches the ideas of its more progressive employees.

Good companies have different ways of incubating change; make sure you understand how your company does it. It may be frustrating to have your ideas welcomed but not immediately acted upon. However, what really matters is whether the company embraces new ideas that contribute to its success.

If you believe your company's failure to implement your ideas is a signal to seek greener pastures, stop and ask yourself whether you're presenting your ideas effectively, and whether they're sound, profitable ideas for the company as a whole. It may be that you need to sharpen your own ability to judge the overall value of new concepts.

If, however, you find that you're always ahead of the company and no one is listening to you, it may be time to go. Remember that in a fast-paced business world we measure time not in months or years, but in product cycles. If more than two product cycles go by and your company's position in the industry keeps slipping and your efforts to prod it are ignored, don't make the mistake of thinking things will change any time soon. Act.

The Wall Says: There are too many walls.
If business has learned one thing in the last 10 years, it's that Henri Fayol's notion that every manufacturing enterprise must be broken into clear and distinct functions doesn't work very well. Keeping engineering, manufacturing, sales, finance, human resources and administration functions separated except at the highest executive levels is dumb. Cross-pollination of perspectives, ideas and skills enables a business to profit from what is today known as "our greatest asset — our people."

Your greatest growth potential will be realized through exposure to many disciplines within your company. I can't tell you how many times I've seen profound problems resolved quickly and simply when workers in disparate departments were allowed to put their heads together to find ways to do the work together. There is no MBA program that will "grow you" like the experience of working with people with skills different from yours.

If your contact with other departments or functions in your company is limited and you feel stuck in a corner, it may be time to go.

The Wall Says: Stay just the way you are.
This signal is painfully simple. If you haven't had the opportunity to learn or do something new in six months or more, it may be time to go. There are two main types of fallout from this situation. The first is obvious: without new skills and experiences, your value will not grow. The second is downright sad: your company will turn into a collection of overly specialized workers whose main concern will be their jobs rather than the company's business.

The Wall Says: Only the rich get richer.
I frequently get e-mail from people thanking me for my exhortations to seek a level of compensation that reflects their contribution to their employer's profitability. Of course, this "profit connection" is not easy to calculate or to communicate. It takes a lot of discussion between the employer and the worker, and such discussions typically happen only when you're being hired into the higher echelons of management. Nonetheless, the underlying concept is critical and it's profound: if I contribute to the bottom line, I should share in the profit.

It may not be easy to come up with exact profit figures — and it's harder still to agree on what represents a fair share of the profit — but it's not impossible to determine that your work is contributing to your employer's success. If your company is doing well and you have contributed to that success, you should be sharing in the wealth. If you're not, it may be time to go.

More and more employers are realizing that some type of profit sharing is the best way to pay people. This approach not only helps control costs and expenses; it engenders loyalty and responsibility for the company's success. An employer who isn't on this track doesn't deserve to have the best employees.

The Wall Says: Come hither.
When headhunters start calling you, it means one of two things. Either you have "arrived" professionally and your worth is known throughout the land; or your industry is expanding at a profitable enough clip that it's willing to pay a premium for your services. Either way, you win.

Should you change jobs because the headhunters are calling? Not necessarily. But you should recognize this as a signal that you need to take stock of how your life and professional community are changing. Ignore signals that your worth is increasing and I promise you, you will soon be kicking yourself.

When the calls start coming, take time with your employer to reassess your position, your levels of responsibility and authority, your pay and your equity in your current company. If your employer is using a yardstick to measure you that's different from the one the headhunters are using, it may be time to go. Your industry may be telling you things have changed and it's time to test your worth.

You Say: I don't want to get up this morning.
If you wake up day after day feeling that you don't really want to go to work, it may be time to go. This is the most nebulous of signals because any (or many) factors may be triggering it, but it's the one that's most in tune with the vicissitudes of your work life. Ignore it at your peril. If a week or two on vacation fails to quiet this signal, recognize that it's your career telling you something is very wrong.

It may be time to go. Read the writing on the wall.

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