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Jim, a communications specialist, is sitting opposite me stirring his second coffee. He has declining budgets, repetitive tasks, and an overbearing boss who micromanages his every move. He can’t remember the last time he had a great day at work. He’s shown me a clipping for a lower-paid job which he thinks he won’t get, and now he’s trying to find a new way to express what he’s been saying for the last half hour — that as much as he dislikes his current job, at least that’s the devil he knows.If any of this sounds familiar, know that a lot of us kid ourselves that we make decisions about our careers. Most of the time we drift along, half-consciously patching together a narrative about “opportunity” which looks a coherent enough career story for interviews. In an upbeat market, jobs come along, new projects emerge, and things just develop under their own momentum.
Working in tough times changes everything. Everything we think about work is dominated by the apparent lack of positions, by stories of layoffs and cutbacks, and the dominant career management strategy has become, “hunker down here and make the best of things.” You may even feel you’re in a “velvet rut” — your career offers little learning and few challenges, but it’s very comfortable, and there is little chance you’ll find the energy to break out of it.
In this extended downturn, how often have you heard people say, “It’s pretty bad, but it’s a place to ride out the storm”? People are staying put, keeping their heads down, and waiting things out. That’s not much of a career strategy.
But neither is fantasizing. I’m the kind of person who tunes in to other people’s conversations on trains, in airports, in Starbucks, and find it fascinating how many conversations offer just this kind of polarised view. It’s a cartoon picture of career choice. Usually people start with the enlivening fantasy about a working day which feels meaningful, or at least interesting, surrounded by energized people. Then (as their body language gives away) they switch to the “realistic.” While fantasizing aloud is a staple part of the way we reflect on work, and while, conversely, market pressure may be real, neither of these help us break through career passivity.
Most of us would love every opportunity to be presented on a plate, every career decision to be obvious. Right now it’s easy to hear the advice, “this is a bad time to be changing jobs.” The reality is that I have heard that phrase, year after year, for two decades.
Go or, stay — but do it for the right reasons.
Moving on should be about finding a role which is a better match for what you have to offer. All work is a compromise, and it’s a mistake to trash your side of the bargain. Work out the real career deal breakers for you. Start by thinking about hot buttons like influence, working relationships, values, trust, and your personal learning.
Before you jump ship, stock your lifeboat. Collect and make sense of your evidence, your achievements, and your reasons for making a change. Work out a clear career wish list and stick to it, in networking and in direct applications, so that you hit something close to the centre of your target.
Staying should always be a positive choice rather than the default option — telling yourself you should be grateful for job security is never more than a temporary fix. Don’t use the downturn as an excuse to put your career on the back burner.
Look at the last three years of work. Have they been three different years, or the same year three times over? What have you learned — where have you been stretched? And (most importantly), how are you going to talk convincingly about this segment of your resume in five years’ time when you’re sitting in front of a recruiter?
And remember that staying doesn’t mean doing nothing. Look at renegotiating some parts of your role. Making vague requests for a more interesting job doesn’t help, so offer tangible initiatives as solutions that help you and the organisation. Seek short-term changes — pilot schemes, attaching yourself to new teams or projects, temporary transfers, “spare time” initiatives — that are relatively risk-free to your organisation but of maximum value to your personal development. Managing upwards marks the beginnings of a properly active career strategy — help others to help you redefine yourself and the way your organisation sees you.
What can you persuade your employer to change? Often far more than you imagine. I have clients who started by saying, “I need to be out of here by Friday,” and moved to, “I can make something of this,” within a matter of days. The light at the end of the tunnel may be yours to switch on.