Your Most Critical Career Decisions

During my almost 30 years in executive search with Spencer Stuart I met, assessed, presented and tracked the careers of countless executives. This activity provided numerous insights about how successful careers are formed, and derailed. Many of these observations have been underscored in my current executive coaching activities.

Without a doubt, the most critical decisions that business professionals make are concerning which job opportunities to pursue and ultimately accept. Professionals who are able to consistently make the right job decisions throughout their careers build superior momentum, more valuable experiences, stronger achievements, and more relevant skill sets. In my experience, doing so results in swifter advancement, greater job satisfaction, and enhanced earnings. Yet, I see a surprising number of executives who accept the wrong opportunities for a myriad of reasons: not doing their homework; accepting the first or second opportunity that arise because they’re in a hurry to get back to work; following a prior boss; not realizing that they are ill-fitted to the culture or environment; unrealistic performance expectations for the role; lack of available resources to succeed in the role; insufficient chemistry with their immediate superior; taking on a challenge which simply cannot be won; settling for a position because the family cannot relocate at the time.

Unfortunately, the wrong decisions often end up in rapid job moves and if the executive is not careful, the appearance of job hopping. The perception of being a job hopper rapidly becomes a career impediment keeping you from access to the most attractive roles. Future employers look at job-hoppers and wonder: “If I hire this executive will they be here long enough to make a positive impact and justify our investment in him/her?”; “Why did this person leave their prior employer so quickly?”; “Can they not get along with others?”; “Could they not do the job?”; “Did they do something unethical?”

I have always had a preference to see executives with an employer for a minimum of 3-4 years or more, and having received at least one promotion during that time frame (with the exception of CEOs and top functional leaders). Why? It take about 1 year to learn the organization, become comfortable in the role, build a team, and layout a strategy/plan. Execution requires additional time…and achieving visible, sustainable results even more.

What should you do to optimize the likelihood that you are making the right job decision?

  • If you happen to find yourself in transition take advantage of the opportunity to ask recent colleagues about what it is you do well; what you could do differently; and what sort of roles or companies would be a good fit.
  • Be a critical judge of whether a particular opportunity is a strong fit with your experience, skill sets, interests, and that the role will allow you to grow your profile .
  • Ask yourself, “Is this a position in which I have confidence that I will be successful?” Is the company willing to make the necessary changes? Are their sufficient resources in terms of people, talent and funding to make a difference? Do I feel comfortable with the company’s culture and how they do business? Is the company financially stable? What does my bosses own track record look like, stable or unstable? Is there expected to be, or, has there been recent management turnover? Is this a “quality” organization I’d be proud to be with?
  • Ideally, whenever possible speak with others who have worked within the organization previously and ask for their opinions and insights. Minimally, while interviewing with the organization, ask to meet or speak by phone to those you are likely to interface with. Also, spend some time on Glassdoor to see what employees are saying about the company.

If you presently employed but dissatisfied with your current role, before automatically jumping to another opportunity speak with your company. Ask about other internal opportunities that may be opening up, or consider a lateral developmental move into another function or part of the company. Doing either of these visibly extends your track record with a current employer and serves to enrichen your profile.

I’m a big believer that few careers follow a linear path. Careers most often unfold. Technology advances and disrupts, industries fall in and out of favor, we learn more about our “professional” selves as we mature and have more experience. Making the right career choices are deliberate decisions guided by our “guts” and which require a conscious level of accurate self-awareness. This requires physically stepping back from the pace of our frenetic daily activity and “to-do” lists to connect the dots and see emerging patterns. At the end of the day we alone are responsible for making right versus wrong choices.

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