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Wake up – Your Career is Waiting

I thought I’d seen it all until the pandemic hit. Given the extraordinary number of displaced professionals and widespread corporate downsizing events, I’ve found myself contemplating the divide between self-directed and passive career tracks. I have firmly determined that it’s never been more important than it is now for professionals to reflect and take control of their careers, as opposed to standing on the sidelines. 

I’ve spent my entire career counseling and encouraging candidates to embrace a future-focused approach to their careers versus settling for a short-term fix. And as of late, I’ve noticed an increasing number of talented professionals further solidifying their passive career position by making less than optimal career decisions.

Much to my dismay, it seems too many talented professionals commit more time researching and planning their vacations than they do reflecting on their short and long-term career goals. One must wonder why some professionals have clean and progressive backgrounds while others have spotty backgrounds including countless job changes. 

In my 25 years as an executive recruiter, I’ve been fortunate enough to forge deep relationships across many industries. Identifying the ideal match for my clients and candidates has become my super-power. This work requires me to constantly check my own levels of emotional intelligence and self-awareness in order to continue to meet the dynamic nature of this industry. But in our present COVID-altered world, I find myself spending an increased amount of time thinking about the future of the job market and what career development will look like in the era of the new normal.

After recently concluding an executive-level candidate search for one of my favorite clients, I was amazed at the number of talented candidates I had come across who were either ambivalent about previous career choices, completely lacking engagement in their future goals, or both. The great divide between self-directed versus passive career tracks hit me like a ton of bricks, again, and I found myself scratching my head at the number of talented professionals who were still participating in their careers from the sidelines. Let me share a few of these scenarios:

  1. Assumed Ascent Annie (Baby Boomer Syndrome): Annie is a Gen X’er with 27 years of professional experience. She spent the first 20 years of her career with one company. Impressive progression, high achiever, and acknowledged for her performance with a multitude of awards. In 2014, her job with this company was eliminated. From there, her resume goes downhill. For the past seven years, she has changed jobs every one to one and a half years and appears to have taken a step back.Annie falls into a phenomenon that started in 2008 when the economy crashed. Since 2008, corporate downsizing has been a regular occurrence. Many professionals who rode the wave before the crash have found themselves in unknown territory. They tend to live in the old world with a reliance on the traditional career ladder: “I work hard and the rewards will come.”My career is in the hands of my company.” Assumed Ascent professionals tend to struggle with evaluating the “why” they would be compelled to accept a job offer with a new company.
  2. Fearless Frank (Job-Hopping Syndrome): Frank is a millennial with 17 years of professional experience. He secured his MBA while working for his first company of five years and since then has changed companies every two years.

    Frank’s career progression started to stall five years ago. Frank explains his job changes from a victim’s point of view: “It’s the company’s fault, not me.” Job Hoppers change jobs many times for a bunch of reasons and are never content. They tend to assess new opportunities on a cursory level focused on merely products, job title, or compensation.
  3. Positive Polly (Blind Optimism Syndrome): Polly is a millennial with 15 years of career experience. Polly was promoted two times and tapped to lead a special project in her first company of seven years.

Next, she was recruited to a step-up role in her next company of eight years where she achieved groundbreaking results and was promoted twice. Polly has had an exceptional career to date but is worried her company will eliminate her job in the next go-around of restructuring. She’s ready to pull the trigger on the next offer that comes along.

Blind Optimism Syndrome includes professionals who believe that everything will work out for the right reasons. These professionals tend to assess new opportunities based on emotion and gut-feel. They struggle with deeper evaluation of the “why” they would be compelled to join a specific company. 

I observe these and other disappointing scenarios like this every day in my work. I have spent a good part of my career coaching professionals on learning the skills to effectively assess new career opportunities that align with their long-term career plan. 

This particular search produced a higher percentage of these types of candidates. While each of the three scenarios I shared are unique, one thing is ubiquitous among them – each of the candidates lacked a self-directed career mindset and the respective skills necessary to identify and assess their ideal opportunity. 

Needless to say, I did not proceed with interviewing any of the candidates referenced above after our first introductory conversation. I knew within 15 minutes that my client would flag them before agreeing to an interview. What perplexed me was that these three professionals struck me as bright, dynamic, and highly competent, but none of them had thoughtful answers for any of my questions about their career choices.

Companies seek candidates who are thoughtful and deliberate about their career choices. They intend to hire talented professionals who are motivated for an opportunity for the right reasons. We all know that history repeats itself and poor past career decisions indicate to many employers what type of decision-maker you’ll be on the job. At least, this is a widely accepted position on the subject.

Reality Check

Events of late have taught those of us in the business world that we can do more with less. Only time will tell who pivots the fastest with sustainable solutions. For professionals, this ignites a new environment as we contemplate our career paths and plans long term. 

I’ve engaged in countless conversations with professionals coming from a wide range of job situations and attitudes as it relates to their future. Fear of the unknown is the true acid test of our convictions and behavior. It can unleash poor decision making that can cause positive career paths to derail. On the other hand, some individuals thrive in ambiguity and their careers flourish.    

It’s been said that truth is like poetry. And as we know, many people do not like poetry. Here’s the reality – it’s never been more important to pause and reflect. Your next career move, or, decision not to make a move, may be the most important decision you make for the long haul. The biggest travesty is when talented professionals, who have recently been displaced, accept an offer with the wrong company only to find themselves looking for a new job a year later. Equally concerning is when talented professionals make impetuous career moves only to discover they were in the running for a promotion.

Strategic career management seems like too much of an afterthought to too many people. I find myself constantly perplexed when contemplating those who take an active, self-directed approach over those who are passive and inactive. Is it about self-awareness? Mentorship? Clearly, we are not going to solve the age-old question today, but perhaps we can stop the bleeding moving forward. 

Thinking Like a CEO

Successful career management boils down to an intentional, deliberate mindset. I often use the key traits of a CEO as an example of this mindset for my candidates – many of whom aspire to be CEOs themselves. The example includes:

  • Intentional, well-planned, deliberate career moves to hit their goal. 
  • Intellectually and culturally curious. Tend to ask deeper and smarter questions during interviews to get to the truth.
  • Growth mindset. Every career move must add value toward the advancement of the career plan and vision.
  • Resilience. View failures as valuable lessons and learn to move forward.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that everyone should aspire to be a CEO. In fact, the average professional does not aspire to the C-suite. Many exceptionally talented folks have no idea how far they want to go in their career. It’s refreshing when I hear candidates share that their fulfillment is not about title or level but rather their ability to thrive, contribute, and grow. Talk about self-awareness! No judgement zone here – but even professionals who don’t aspire to a C-suite position can glean insights from the CEO-bound thought process.

That being said, let’s remove the CEO-bound group and put it in terms for the rest of us. 

Take Control of Your Career – Create Your Ideal Opportunity Checklist

Regardless of your current job situation, one thing is common among all – stepping into the arena and owning your career is a choice. Whether you are currently employed or not, you deserve to enjoy a fulfilling career. How do you know the perfect job isn’t already staring you in the face? How do you know if the job offer in your hand won’t lead you to a career mistake? If you are struggling to answer these questions, perhaps it’s time to set your alarm and wake up earlier tomorrow to get started on taking control of your career.

Answering these questions and making smart career decisions starts with creating an Ideal Opportunity Checklist. Doing so will build a new level of empowered self-assurance. It’s a powerful exercise to gain clarity by ensuring that your next career opportunity aligns with your long-term goals. This critical process serves as the foundation for all job search activity, career assessment, career planning, and decision making.

An Ideal Opportunity Checklist is different from a job search wish list. It all starts with self-awareness, reflection, and planning. If you haven’t tried it, I have a feeling it will lead to a few epiphanies. Leading a self-directed career is inspiring and rewarding. You are in control and if you’re thrown a curveball, you’ll be better prepared to re-start and confidently land your next ideal job that fits your career plan.

Five Steps to Creating Your Ideal Career Opportunity Checklist

  1. Assess Your Current Job Situation. Most professionals fall into one of the below job situation categories. Think about: what is your current status that would lead you to explore new opportunities within your current company or in your next company?
    • Furloughed.
    • Downsized/loss of job.
    • Fear of upcoming loss of job.
    • Disenchanted with leadership and selectively looking. 
    • Thriving, yet aspire for the next step or change of culture. 
    • Thriving, yet aspire to do something completely different.
  2. Define Your Long-Term Career Aspirations. Start by visualizing your ideal self: The picture of your career and what you will have accomplished before you are ready to retire. What skills will you have mastered? Will you be an entrepreneur? How many people will be counting on you? What is your level of responsibility and authority? How will you have impacted the lives of others? What mark will you have left in your company, industry, or community?
  3. Create Your Roadmap. Create a map of how you plan to get to your end game. What skills, competencies, situations, and experiences do you need to add to your “living resume” to achieve your career plan? Do you need to pursue higher education and certifications to achieve your goals? Don’t stress about staying on the exact course. Life is filled with surprises. In fact, left turns in our careers can be eye-opening and life-changing. Intentional left turns can amplify our growth and development. So, make room for left turns and shifts in personal priorities.
  4. Define Your Ideal Job Criteria. This step includes developing the list of criteria by which you will define your ideal job in the short-term. Go deep on this exercise. There’s more to an ideal job than the job title, leadership, and compensation. Which boxes do you need to check that further your career plan? To be successful, your ideal job criteria must align with your long-term goals. What do you need to do in order to be the right fit for the company, role, and culture? The first step is to identify your list of criteria.The second and most important step is to ask yourself “why” the items on your list are important to you. Savvy interviewers with high levels of emotional intelligence will ask you “why” a particular value is important to you. For example, if working with diverse teams is important to you be prepared to answer “why” in an interview. You may be surprised how many blank stares I receive when asking “why”. The list should be extensive. Here are a few thought starters to consider:
    • Where is the company in its growth cycle? Do you thrive in turn-around, start-up, transformational, or fast growth environments?
    • Does diversity and inclusion matter to you?
    • Does ambiguity excite you or do you thrive in well-oiled machine environments?
    • Do you seek to increase the scope of your current role or do you seek a step-up promotion role? Will you accept a lateral role if the company, culture, work, and compensation are aligned with your goals? 
    • How do decisions get made? What is the organization structure and where does the role sit in the hierarchy?
    • How sophisticated are the technology, systems, and processes?
    • How important is office location and work at home flexibility?
    • What is the company’s history of performance?
    • What are customers and stakeholders saying about the company? What is the company’s reputation in the market?
    • What is your risk tolerance? Does working for a private equity owned company excite you?
    • What is the company’s position on innovation and resource allocation?
    • Do you embrace the mission and vision?
    • Do the company’s values align with your core values?
  5. Conduct a Reality Check. Check your ego at the door and assess your completed Ideal Opportunity Checklist. Is what you seek realistic in your industry? Do your personal life obligations give you the capacity to realistically work on your goals? Do you stack up against the competition? No singular job opportunity can ever fulfill every single item on an Ideal Opportunity Checklist. The checklist should fall somewhere between aspirational and realistic. There may be trade-offs.

Take time to ‘weight’ each of your criteria so you are prepared to pull a trigger without hesitation when the offer is extended. Many highly accomplished leaders intentionally pursued lateral career moves to gain critical experience. The insight here is to be prepared to say “yes” when the opportunity is in your lap. Being indecisive when a job offer is on the table does not bode well.

Completing your Ideal Career Opportunity Checklist will enable you to be decisive and clear when a recruiter taps you on the shoulder with a compelling opportunity, when a new opportunity arises in your current company, or when you receive an offer, or multiple offers, while actively searching for a new job.

Consider reviewing your checklist and career aspirations on an annual basis. Check in with yourself and take time to reflect. Glean insights from your experiences over the past year. Do you have new passions? Have you continued and expanded your credentials through education? Have you met new mentors who have exposed you to enlightened career goals?

It’s important to note that your long-term career aspirations will shift over time. Personal life plays a large role in your career lifecycle. There are periods where we are all-in and there are periods when we may need to put the breaks on for a bit. Anything and everything is okay, what matters is that you are self-aware and conscious as you charter your course.

It’s Your Time

In response to the pandemic, companies have woken up and are toning new muscles to pivot quickly across business units, cutting costs, supply chain, go to market efficiency, and other strategic and operations platforms. At the same time, companies have also put focus on workforce design and quality of talent. Can we do more with less? What capabilities and competencies are needed to hit strategic growth objectives? Do we have the right bench of talent to take on future leadership roles? This is an opportune time to up your game and take control of the things you can control. Refrain from the wait-and-see attitude – now is your time!

If you are unemployed, be strategic about your job search and keep the end in mind as much as you can. Also, and as mentioned earlier, the grass is not always greener. If you are fortunate enough to be thriving in your company, role, and culture – stay! Find ways to maximize your output, add value, and offer solutions. But at the same time, do the work and reflect on your career to date. Dream and visualize your end game.

All professionals owe it to themselves to explore new opportunities at any stage. Staying true to your Ideal Opportunity Checklist will boost your confidence to make smart career decisions and help you avoid making a critical career error. You only get one career – why sleep through it? Wake up and own it. 

What time will you set your alarm for tomorrow so you can get started taking control of your career?

A note from Lisa A. Wolf, Founder & CEO of Wolf Search Solutions and Transition Corner:

Identifying and nurturing top talent for companies at the forefront of their industry has allowed me to engage in fulfilling work that has enabled me to lead with both heart and mind. As an ardent advocate for my candidates’ and clients’ collective success, I am also fiercely proud to uphold Transition Corner’s mission to change lives and trajectory, respectively, for the positive.

Transition Corner was born from the foundational construct of my mission:

To be the catalyst for professionals to rise and take control of their careers and provide them with robust tools and resources to master their job search and career journey. Transition Corner clients deserve nothing less.