Thursday, October 22, 2009

Before you quit your job

Time to read this post: five minutes

About once a month, I get an email from someone at my company who is confused. They want to change career. They want to get a new job. Sometimes they are just done with work. Almost always they have decided they want their life to be different. But they don't know where to begin. So we get a coffee. We talk about how they feel, what they want, what their plan is. I thought that I would share the two big questions that they tend to grapple with. There are some useful resources and approaches out there and people seem to like them.

Question one: What do I really want to do?
Most of us only have a vague sense of what kind of work would bring us a combination of pleasure, challenge and a sense of meaning. When I ask people over coffee what do they think they want to do they tend to give vague answers. "I'd like to work in finance". "I'd like to get a job in retail". The problem with trying to define yourself by industry is that there is huge variation in job type within a sector. The day-to-day interactions with colleagues, the length of commute, your boss's sense of humour will have much more impact on your levels of enjoyment than the abstract industry it may be part of.

Po Bronson in his book argues that working out what you want to do is actually the wrong question. Instead you need to ask yourself "Who do I want to be?"; "What do I stand for?"; "What values do I want to embody?" Then from that place of being you can then think about doing.

A wise colleague of mine says that when he works with CEOs he gets them to take out a blank sheet of paper. On the left hand side he gets them to write down what they love doing. On the right hand side they write down what they hate doing. He has tried doing this with "what I am good at" on the left and "what I am bad at" on the right - but he says that simply doesn't work. It has to be what you love and hate. For me the things I love would include things like "Being the center of attention when telling a joke; running in forests; working fast to hit a deadline; analyzing data in excel; applying lessons from one academic discipline to another..." These are things that really energize me. So the first step I recommend is to get a clear understanding of what gives you energy and what drains you. This is closely connected to playing to your strengths, understanding what motivates you, what your preferences are.

Practical tools:
1. VIA strengths assessment: go to, login then take the VIA strengths questionnaire
2. buy Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath. It will give you a code to do their online test (not as long as VIA)
3. Reflect on your Myers-Briggs type or DISC assessment
4. Write your 'What gives me / drains me of energy' list
5. Ask colleagues & friends how you occur to them. When do they see your eyes light up?
6. Re-read those business school applications
7. Write 100 words about your top 3 life experiences, then the bottom 3. Reflect on what it was about you and situation that made them so exhilarating / poor.

Blah blah blah. Undoubtedly all good stuff. But unfortunately these all rely on uncovering a deep truth about what you value most. But often you don't know what you don't know. How can I tell if I should resign and set up a non-profit when I have never done anything like it. Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling Upon Happiness points out that most off us are terrible at predicting what will make us happy. Hermina Ibarra in Working Identity argues that the classic model of i) think hard about what it is you want to do ii) go and do that is not borne out by people who have successfully changed careers. In fact quite the opposite. Most people who redefined their work and careers began experimenting on the side. "Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of being than to think their way into a new way of acting."

This is about starting side projects. When I was doing my MBA I got very interested in Organizational Behavior and Executive Coaching. I decided to become a life coach. I trained with the Coaches Training Institute (picture a twenty six year old British guy and 24 middle-aged women from Iowa sitting in a hotel room in Washington DC for five long weekends). I tried giving coaching to practice clients. It was fine but I found it lonely and missed my teammates and colleagues. Thank goodness I had not yet resigned from my steady job as a strategy consultant.

Now I recommend people "try on a new hat" when they go out. The next time you are at a dinner party and someone utters those dreaded four words ['what do you do?'], don't mumble an apologetic reply about your current boring job. Instead explain your vision for the future. "I'm thinking about starting my own dance studio" or "I plan to be working in digital marketing by the end of the year". The other person will invariably ask you all about these exciting plans and you get the chance to see what it feels like to be a budding entrepreneur. They will ask you questions or offer opinions that will make you consider your plans from a fresh perspective. You will walk away with new questions, new plans and a better sense of where you should be heading.

Question two: How do I find a new job?

OK, you know what energizes you but you don't know where to find the job that fits the bill. Classic job search approaches include: writing your bio/CV/resume, cover letter, interviewing skills, networking, references and the like. Again, this is all good stuff but I have a couple of different views.

If your new job does exist somewhere, it is probably more than one handshake away. As we know, networking is not about who you know but who knows you. I look at my hundreds of LinkedIn connections. About 80% of the list are a variety of former-strategy consultants and friends from my MBA. Now if I do NOT want to end up in the strategy department of a large corporate I need to start thinking about my networks very differently. In fact the impressive networking list may not be much good at all. If I ultimately want to be running an NGO in Africa then I need to start running in very different circles. Which circles do you want to be networking in? What would you need to get involved with? Who should you be getting a coffee with?

Here's some worse news: you're close-to-ideal job probably does not exist. Instead you are going to have to create it. Of all the best parts of my current job, I was not asked to do any of them. Zero. Instead I just started side-projects. As long as I was doing my main job well then nobody seemed to question how I used my spare time. A couple of year’s ago I wrote some training in my spare time on the seven things consultants don’t know about enjoying life. I presented it to a group of five secretaries over pizza one day. I even paid for the pizza. It wasn’t very good to tell the truth. But I kept tweaking it and making it a little better. And word spread. I got asked to present it to larger groups. Now two years later I am now invited to give the presentation all over the world. I love doing it. And now I’m paid to do it. It all starts with experiments on the side. Of course, initially this means more work for you. And that's a barrier for most people. That said it has been one of the most consistent strategies that I have seen other people use to create a role that they love. Normally it takes about six months to see if your side-experiment gets traction. It might be something that your current job morphs into. Or it gives you confidence to break out on your own or with friends.

Let me know if you want to grab a coffee.

PS Many of my ideas are inspired by two books:
A: Working Identity by Hermina Ibarra
Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career

B: What shall I do with my life? - Po Bronson
What Should I Do with My Life?: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question

There are also classic books out there like "What color is your parachute?" which is perfectly fine, it's just really long / thorough and I can never get past chapter three.
What Color Is Your Parachute? 2010: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers


Anonymous said...

Hi Alan, I came across your blog in I like it because it's very timely in my current situation. I appreciate that you took time to write this as a piece that can help people think about what path to take career-wise. I hope I can come back to this page as a changed career person. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Oops I meant relevant, not timely. *excuse me*

miss-mail said...

Hello Allan, i stumble your page in too. thanks for this post. i am giving myself a year before resigning so this helps a lot.