If you're facing a career change and aren't sure where you want to go, don't waste time speculating. Sell yourself, get real offers, then decide
In our journeys through life, we all face times of change. These transitions may be planned and predictable, such as graduation from college or your pre-set retirement—or unplanned and surprising, such as dismissal from a job or the bankruptcy of your company.
I have listened to thousands of graduating students, mid-career professionals, and retirees tell the stories of their lives and their hopes for the future as they anticipate change. A frequent problem I see in professionals facing big life-decisions is paralysis. They get lost debating the desirability of options they don't have yet.
My friend Randy is an excellent example. Randy had a fantastic career in a top professional-services company. In spite of his outstanding contribution to the business, he was in his early sixties and according to this company's published guidelines, it was time to go. He was very dynamic and had no interest in traditional retirement. He knew that he wanted an exciting new career challenge for the next few years but wasn't sure what. We discussed his future and he started thinking about leadership in the nonprofit sector.
"Perhaps I should be a leader in a human services firm," he mused enthusiastically. "I really don't need much money, and this would give me an opportunity to make a positive contribution to society. I believe that a lot of what I have learned in business could be applied in the social sector. And who knows? At my age, this type of change might be great fun for me!"
His face changed expression as he began to debate with himself. "On the other hand, I'm not sure that I want to spend all of my time taking rich old people out for lunch and begging them for money," he fretted. "That may be a large part of my job as a nonprofit leader. And sometimes those nonprofit people look down on business people like me. They think we are all just greedy capitalists with no real values."
Randy had similar debates with himself about consulting, private equity, and a couple of other future careers. As he began his search for a new job, he didn't do very well. Some potential organizations saw him as arrogant. They felt he showed more interest in "What can you do for me?" than "What can I do for you?" He asked a lot of questions he could have answered himself had he done more homework; they felt he communicated with ambiguity and showed a lack of genuine desire for the new job.
Offers First, Decisions Later
Randy became a little defensive as he and I discussed some of the feedback from the companies where he had interviewed. "I am not really sure what I want," he snapped. "What's wrong with me asking a few questions? And by the way, I'm not so sure I would have wanted those jobs anyway!"
I gave Randy the career advice I give most often: Get real offers.
"Why don't you go out, do your homework, sell yourself better, and get some specific offers in writing?" I asked. "Until you get real offers most of your internal debating is just hypothetical, a waste of time. From what I have heard from you so far, I think that there are some positions in the nonprofit world that you would love—and others that you couldn't stand. My guess is that the same thing is true for private equity or consulting. Get real offers—with real salaries, real job descriptions, real co-workers, and real board members. Then you can do apples to apples comparisons and figure out which position you like the best. It doesn't really matter how you feel about a job you will never get anyway."
Finding the Fitting Offer
Randy changed his attitude, did his homework, and started going for real offers. He dropped his "are you good enough for me" questioning and started selling himself and his potential to make a contribution. He quit doing informational interviews that made it seem as if he were judging the organization's worth, and focused on organizations that might be a fit.
Within a few months, he had some real alternatives. Although there was much he liked about the nonprofit world, he realized that his options there were not nearly as exciting (to him) as leadership in a venture capital firm. He decided that he could help society more by making money and giving it to other nonprofit leaders who would be better at human services management than he was. He deeply respected the specific board members and co-workers in his new VC firm and decided that he was going to have a lot of fun as a venture capitalist.
My advice for you, if you're facing transition and are getting stuck in a mental debate among competing potential career options, is: focus your energy on getting offers. When you get real offers, you can make real decisions. At the end of the day, all job offers are good. And even if you say no to an offer, you will probably have learned something in the process—even if it's learning what you don't want. And it's nice to be asked.