How to take back control of your career without knee-jerk job switches.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Carlo is in his early 30s managing a team of junior data scientists in a digital consultancy. He loves data science and how it can transform decision making, but his team is under a lot of pressure.
Carlo likes his boss, but he always gets the impression she feels he’s not as commercial as she’d like him to be. She says things in meetings like “Well [Carlo’s project] is fascinating, but fascinating don’t pay the bills.”
Recently, one member of his team has been undermining some of his decisions to pursue certain research projects, asking ‘what’s the point’. After several cocktails, Carlo told his partner he’s going to leave and get a job with a ‘more enlightened’ competitor.
Sound familiar? Well, it should be. It’s the New Year, and many of us are daydreaming this familiar fantasy called ‘New Year — new job — new you.’
We complain bitterly about the pressure, the politics and the passive-aggressive bullshit in the workplace. Our natural reaction is to just switch jobs, but most of the time it’s the wrong answer.
In fact, however powerless we feel, we can actually be the architects of a complete reset relationship with our employers, or a much more mindful job search, in four simple steps.
But first, let’s try to go back to the beginning. Why did we choose our job in the first place, and what went wrong?
The Expectation Gap
We tend to start with the gap between our expectations of the job, and our employers’ expectations of us.
Employees often project onto a new job their hopes and dreams — “discovering new skills,” “becoming a really marketable analyst,” “working on prestigious international deals” — rather than reasonable expectations.
Employers, meanwhile, want their ‘pound of flesh’. They often want you to perform exactly the role they hired you for — a cog in the wheel.
The nephew of a friend of mine recently joined a major global technology company — let’s call it HighTower — straight out of college. In his first few months, he was very shaken to learn the truth of his role, which is summarised by one Glassdoor writer as:
A toxic environment where new recruits are constantly watching their backs. People are told they are not the “right fit” just a few weeks into the job despite going through a rigorous interview process, and can be asked to leave with no notice [which] is unnecessary and unethical. While the company seems to offer a great package in terms of salary and other benefits, there seems to be little or no concern for people who fall behind on targets.
Is it unethical? Sales cultures have always felt brutal if you’re not used to them. But more to the point, HighTower is simply behaving according to their own programming: they have determined that the high-staff-turnover model is the best way to achieve a high-performance culture (I actually think they’re wrong, but bear with me).
And they have to achieve high performance because their shareholders will all be expecting that long-promised Q3 earnings uptick.
New recruits are also very quickly ‘HighTowerized’ — encouraged to have ‘intellectual curiosity’ but only in the HighTower way. There is no room for independent thinking or deviating from best practices. Asking “why” things are done the way they are is met by a disdainful “because they are”.
This is perhaps the darker side: HighTower are using every ‘conditioning’ trick in the book to teach their employees the right client behaviors.
In my previous article, I call this casual brainwashing. It might indeed be unethical, but it is still pretty universal.
My Story: ‘Waking Up’
I worked as a management consulting director (i.e. with a big fee target on my head) for 14 years and it was exhausting. But when it was good it was great. I loved sales and the consulting discovery process, and thrived when it was going well.
But in the last few years there I started to really loathe it. Why? Had I become a terrible consultant? Or had I just fallen out of love with it?
One day I kind of ‘woke up’ and realized that, in all honesty, I just didn’t care about selling consulting work anymore, particularly not to big rich organizations simply chasing their share price. My priorities had changed, my values had changed, and my employer’s hadn’t.
Once I’d figured that out, everything got easier. I quit and spent some time figuring out what made me tick.
It felt a bit like learning to walk again after a stroke (I was helped by some excellent career coaching). It was hard, but it was two things I hadn’t experienced in my career in a while — it was exciting and inspiring.
The story is ongoing, but I got an amazing part-time job with a financial non-profit designing a technology project for children in care, and picked up contract work with an NGO writing about ways to combat organized crime in Africa.
Sound simple? No, it wasn’t.
It took me about five years to finally listen to the little voice in my head which was saying to me — you know what hon., this isn’t really you anymore. And it took me the best part of a year just to land a part-time role.
Finding Your ‘Calling’
It’s quite an old concept, isn’t it? With religious undertones, defined as:
…a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence…
But ‘your calling’ doesn’t need to be missionary work in Sub-Saharan Africa. It doesn’t even need to be ‘one thing’. It just needs to be closer to your truth.
An excellent Guardian piece calls out the misstep we tend to make when knee-jerk job-hunting…
“They start with solutions, like ‘I’d love to be a graphic designer’, rather than going back a stage and considering what that career would really give them,” says Jo Orgill, The Clarity Coach
“Many people begin by looking at their CV and education,” adds Richard Alderson, founder or Careershifters. “They think, ‘This is what I’ve done in the past, therefore this is what I can do in future’ — but their past is what’s got them to where they are now, and that’s what they want to change.”
So we tend to mess up at the very start of our career search.
A friend of mine, an experienced strategy management consultant and charity Director, wants to go back to work after having two awesome children. But she feels utterly misdirected by her own ‘conditioning’:
I feel brainwashed by the world and its view of what an educated wife and mother should do. I’m not happy not working but I’m not sure whether that is because I actually want to work, or whether I feel ‘someone like me’ shouldn’t be ‘just’ a housewife.
So, in short, we’re often our own worst enemies in a career search situation.
Here are four steps that I used to discover a much more authentic truth about the job, indeed the life, that would really inspire and enthuse me.
1. Stop Hating: Forgive Your Work
Hate your job? You’re in a bad place. You know it, and everyone around you knows it (even if you haven’t told them). You will have focussed your frustration on your boss, your co-worker, maybe even a client.
So start by forgiving them. Firstly, because it’s not their fault.
Your employer is just a big dumb machine trying to do what it says on the annual report — and often failing. Secondly, it’s sapping your energy and distracting you from the real issue.
You’ve fallen out of love — but be kind. (P.S. I really wish I’d followed my own advice here.)
2. Take Time Out to Properly Test Out Your Values
Our core values reflect our fundamental choices of who we want to be. They provide the goals and criteria that should influence all our other personal decisions.
Discovering what they are is much harder than it seems. If we simply ask ourselves to list our values, we tend to suffer a kind of honesty by-pass.
We list ones that ‘seem good’. So we see them through a filter of what we think they should be, and how they might seem to others. Not very authentic of us is it? But it’s human nature (cf. casual brainwashing).
Luckily psychologists have some up with some nice ways to ‘trick’ the brain into telling the truth.
Scott Jeffrey has a great online guide and lists three ways of ‘uncovering’ values, my favorite of which is:
1) Peak Experiences
Consider a meaningful moment — a peak experience that stands out.
What was happening to you?
What was going on?
What values were you honoring at this time?
Take some time to really work through these exercises, and determine Scott’s top personal core values. And if you want to validate your findings against research, try Herzberg’s ‘motivational factors’ and ‘hygiene factors’.
Herzberg (1959) listed the following key motivators — which still seem incredibly relevant to my eye.
- Sense of achievement
- Growth and promotional opportunities
- The meaningfulness of the work
3. Give Your Current Job an Honest Score
Here’s an exercise I devised for myself whilst sitting in a very dull meeting a few years ago in my management consultancy.
Against each value, I scored out of 10, how much my current job and life outside of work satisfied the value. And then (and this is the crucial bit) I gave an honest score for the potential of my job and my extra-curricular life to improve upon those scores.
My own values vs. job assessment
When I did this analysis for my old job, you’ll see I concluded that I could improve upon the scores if I was more creative about opportunities at work.
For the most important value (social purpose), however, I couldn’t really shift the score by staying where I was — hence my move.
But that’s not your score, and these aren’t your values. Many people find that actually, the fastest way to get closer to their values is to stay where they are.
4. Make Your Decision Mindfully
If you conclude, like me, that you need to make the switch, go for it. But be careful: the entire recruitment industry doesn’t want you to follow your calling or your values.
They want you to do exactly what you’ve already done — what’s on your CV— because they can place you easily. That way no-one has to do much thinking.
You’ll need to undertake the same scoring exercise for your new potential career, and that isn’t easy.
How can you tell if a new career will match your values? By properly scrutinizing the role and forming your own view of the culture.
Oh, and of course, by avoiding that very old adage:
“The harvest is always more fruitful in another man’s field.” — Ovid