Do You Need to Switch Jobs to Advance Your Career?

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Given how much time most of us devote to our work, we want it to have meaning. Instead of just plugging away at jobs day in and out, we want careers. Through them, we hope to leave a legacy that is worthy of a lifetime of work.

It’s almost impossible to develop a great career without changing jobs along the way. Without change, there’s little room for personal growth. The best careers sometimes come from changing industries, changing geography or changing job functions. Other times, they require switching companies – or even starting over. Truth be known, “staying put” often requires the greatest change of all – changing ourselves. In career development, as in evolutionary biology, “Change or die!” is the imperative.

Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries has dedicated his life to working with former gang members in the toughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles. He provides job training in the organization’s various enterprises. He started out with a simple bakery, and then expanded it to include a farmers’ market, a dairy, plumbing services, diners and cafés. His own career objective has been remarkably constant over the years: Save and change lives. And while the jobs to be done have extended into new industries, products and services, his core mission – giving former gang members a way out of the cycle of violence – has never wavered. He found his career early on – only the jobs have changed.

In our workaday world, our missions and ambitions might not be as constant, clear or inspiring as Father Boyle’s. To home in on a worthy objective may require significant introspection, including asking, “What would I do with my life if I didn’t need a paycheck?”

It’s as good a question as any to get you to brainstorm ideas for a career plan. But it’s not enough. Once you’ve answered this question, you have to consider whether anyone would pay someone to do what you’d be willing to do for free. And if they would, are you good enough to get paid for doing those things? (For example, I’d play Major League Baseball for free; but there are very few slots for people who can’t run, hit or throw!) Still, if possible, consider a career that’s a “close cousin” to what you’d do for nothing.

Then ask yourself what’s keeping you from moving toward that career. Is it your present job? Your employer? The industry you’re in? Your pay? Your boss? Your future prospects? When you figure out the key obstacles, decide whether you need to go outside your current employer or industry to pursue the career you want.

If you decide you can stay put, contemplate career paths available within the enterprise that currently employs you. And keep in mind that just this past summer, Rodney McMullen, who started 36 years earlier as a stock boy at Kroger was named the CEO of the $100 billion enterprise.

If nothing with your current employer interests you, consider an elegant move – i.e. one that doesn’t hurt your employer, that doesn’t involve going to or becoming a competitor and that secures a great recommendation and a permanent invitation to alumni get-togethers.

If you’re seriously contemplating a career change or active career development, consider the following:

  1. Know yourself. Get an evaluation of your skills, values and interests to better understand how you fit with the career that interests you. Use assessments from supervisors, peers, teachers or coaches to understand your skills and proclivities. And on the job, regularly seek feedback wherever and whenever you can find it.
  2. Study up. Seriously research the business or industry you think might be right for you – attend trade shows, conferences or functional training sessions. Read industry journals. Consider formal classes. And above all, talk with successful people in the career that attracts you. See how they got there, what prices they’ve paid, what they like about it – and what they don’t. If you’re interested in switching industries, hang around some you think you might like. In spending time with politicians, for example, I found that I would not generally like having them as my colleagues, so I changed playing fields at a young age.
  3. Manage expectations. If you switch careers, be realistic. You’ll likely need to start at the bottom. This could mean less compensation, lower status or fewer direct reports; so be ready to make this “investment.”
  4. Broaden your horizons. Pick from as long a list of target industries, functional duties or companies as you can develop, and ask friends and family who they know. Warm leads are always better than cold ones.
  5. Don’t be in a rush. If it takes an extra year in a 40-year career to find the right path for you, don’t be surprised and don’t panic. You don’t want to make a career change only to find that the grass was not greener on the other side of the fence after all.
  6. Ride developing waves. The best careers are often ones where demographics or disruptive technologies are on your side. Wherever there is growth and profitability, there are usually rapid career development opportunities as well.
  7. Pick your moment. Career changes can be stressful, so if your family members have health problems or you don’t have resources to tide you over, think about taking a bit more time. I had a PhD agronomist friend who decided he wanted to “repot” in new soil, and by carefully choosing his moment, he became a commercial lender to farmers before ending up as a bank president.
  8. Think about starting your own business. This can be stressful, but it’s a good option if you have a clear plan, the resources you need and a fallback if things don’t work out. Building a business is hard work, but for the right person, it can represent an exceptionally gratifying career.
  9. Don’t do it for the money. You won’t find fulfillment from money alone. It may be worth changing jobs or employers for an increase in pay, but making a career change should be for reasons that will sustain you over a lifetime and give you a sense of legacy at the end of the day.

On Mary Lou Quinlan’s 45th birthday, she asked herself, “What do I love to do?” As an already successful CEO of an advertising firm, she set out on her own to interpret female consumers for corporate clients, writing books along the way. Before long, she’d written a one-act play and found herself performing as an actor in it. For her, repotting meant following passions that couldn’t be fulfilled in her CEO role.

I did the same thing at age 45, and for the past 22 years I’ve never looked back on teaching as a second career.

By Joel Peterson