Is up the only way forward? A generation ago, professional success followed the set formula of steady promotions up the org chart. You worked hard, you made your numbers, and you got promoted. If you joined a new company, you continued at a more senior position and then continued this steady upward movement. Joining a company for a lesser position? Taking a seniority cut or a pay cut? That just didn’t happen.
Today, we’re more open to accepting the idea that professional success isn’t linear. We love a good comeback story and we applaud colleagues who take risks to follow professional and personal dreams. But living this reality in our own lives is much more challenging.
Sometimes, to find your true north, you need to go south. This is more than simply being resilient in the face of a temporary work set back. I mean intentionally choosing a position that’s not an obvious step forward.
I get it: optically, this is a gamble. You want to show you’re a performer and you’re going places. Taking a position that’s “beneath” your pay grade or management experience is more than a blow to the ego. Optically, you can worry this sends a message that you’re struggling professionally. What I’ve found, however, is that these “southern dips” are key to diversifying your experience and background. They can lead to far more lucrative and successful opportunities than you’d have otherwise if you stuck to a linear progression.
Every Direction is Valuable
I think of my candidate’s career as a compass. Some clients take me them north, some take them east or west, and some take them south. South isn’t bad, it’s just a different direction– and every direction has value.
• North. I found a controller her dream job as a CFO of a middle market private equity business. She drove the business to a successful exit and the private equity partners made her the new CEO.
• East. I was working with a Senior Accountant who had issues moving up in his current company. I told him to make a lateral move, which optically worried him. I told him in five years in his current position, he would be in the same role. He took the leap of faith and now is the Head of Finance of a $100MM business. His peers at his old company are still Senior Accountants. These are the same peers who advised him against moving and recommended he stay put. He’s glad he made the jump!
• West. A CFO candidate was offered a COO role. As a career accountant, this was outside the mold of what he was doing. Since his career goal was to run his own business, he took the role. He excelled in the position and learned to marry operations with finance. He is currently the CEO of a $100MM private equity owned portfolio company. Private Equity loves that fact that he has a strong grasp of the numbers and understands the nuances of finance.
• South. I had a very pedigreed WestPoint/Harvard candidate who was a Vice President at a PE firm. During the financial crisis, he was let go. I found him a job for half the pay as an analyst at a $2B NASDAQ listed firm. Optically, this position looked like he was going south in his career, but as a new father, he embraced the lifestyle changed since the position gave him better work-life balance. Unbeknownst to him when he accepted the job, the Head of Corporate Development was retiring and was looking for a successor. Now he is the Head of Corporate Development and the next in line to become Chief Revenue Officer!
Your Career is a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder: Go Where the Compass Points
Mohamed A. El-Erian, former PIMCO CEO and author of “The Only Game in Town” says to think of your career as a jungle gym, not a ladder. On the jungle gym, you don’t always move up. You need to make strategic moves sideways or down to get to your end goal. This takes a willingness to think big picture and go where the compass points. It’s okay not always to go “north.”
So how can you apply this mindset to your career trajectory? Start with these three questions:
1. Am I learning something new? It’s far better to be a Swiss army knife than a one-trick pony. In the military, we learned new things early and often. I apply that same mindset to my career. Continually ask, “What am I learning here? Where could I be learning more?”
2 . Why am I here? There are four good reasons why you should be at your current job, and none should include money:
• I love the projects I’m working on
• I’m surrounded by people who are smarter than me
• I’m continually challenged to rethink my perspective
• Management incentivizes my career based on my perspective and performance
Are you struggling to answer the above questions in the affirmative? You may be stuck in what I call a “paper mache” career– shiny on the outside but completely hollow and unfulfilling on the inside. You need to make a change or you’ll always be searching for something more.
3. What happens if I set my ego aside? Being humble is hard but the rewards are worth it. I had an investment banker who laughed at taking a $300k pay cut for a corporate development role. I pressed him and told him to take a leap of faith. Now, he’s the CEO of a Fortune 1000 business, making more than he thought possible, and he loves his work-life balance.
In a world that equates progress with “moving up,” you must be willing to chart your own course, finding value in every direction on the compass.
What drives your career? I invite you to share in the comments below.