Has the time come to make a major change in your career? If it feels like the answer might be yes, then you are likely at a career crossroads--a moment when you need to make some big decisions about what you want from your work and your life.
If so, don't be afraid. It's an exciting time, says Wendy Capland, executive coach and bestselling author of Your Next Bold Move. Capland is my coach, and for the past couple of years, she's been coaching me and I've been writing about it.
"Career crossroads happen periodically throughout your working life," she says. In your 20s, she explains, you're liable to change jobs two or three times, or maybe more, as you seek new opportunities and look for the right fit. In your 50s, you will likely change jobs frequently again, looking for more senior positions and bigger opportunities. Or, it may be a time when you start thinking about what you'd like to accomplish as you approach retirement, which could lead you in a whole new direction.
"It's good to move around," she says. "You gain more experience, build a strong network externally, and it all adds to your value. So I think it's a good thing to be at a career crossroad and to be looking at what's next."
How can you tell that you're at a career crossroads? For one thing, the fact that you're reading this column is a clue that you might be. Beyond that, Capland advises, "Check your inner state. You can tell if you're getting itchy, if you feel like you're not as valued as you'd like to be, or you're feeling stale, like you've been doing the same thing for a long time. Or if you're unhappy."
You can have these feelings whether you're an employee or an entrepreneur, she adds. People who are their own boss are just as likely to feel "itchy" or to find themselves needing a change as those who work for someone else.
What should you do if you decide you really are at a career crossroads? Here's Capland's advice:
1. Take charge of your own career.
"Many people think, 'My manager will offer me opportunities if I do a good job,'" Capland says. "'They'll promote me, they'll take care of me in some way.' Although that could be true, my recommendation is to always steer your own career. It doesn't tend and care for itself, you actually have to do stuff. And no one cares more about your career than you do."
Entrepreneurs are usually accustomed to seeking out the next steps for themselves, but even so, you can sometimes get lulled into thinking that a key customer or investor will create opportunity for you. Just make sure you also create your own.
2. Ask yourself exactly what you want.
If you've determined that you're at a career crossroads, spend some time thinking about what you really want, and what needs to change. Don't skip this step because the answers to these questions will determine what action you take.
"One possibility is that you're not satisfied. You may not be sure what you want, but you know you want to make a change," Capland says. "Or it might be that you've gotten what there is to get where you're working or doing what you're doing, and you want to add something new. You might have to leave to do that." Or perhaps you were perfectly happy but your workplace or your work has changed so that it's no longer a good fit for you.
Or it could be that you want to do something completely different such as changing to a new profession, she says. Spend some time thinking on these questions so that you know what's making you unsatisfied, even if you don't yet know precisely what to do about it.
3. Get an outside perspective.
It can be hard to figure out what needs to change and what you want to do about it all by yourself, Capland says. So she advises talking it through with someone else, a coach or a friend.
One of her colleagues is head of marketing at a company that doesn't seem to value marketing very much, she says. He's thinking about leaving and isn't sure what to do. So he contacted his former boss who now works for a different company and invited him to lunch to help him figure it out.
In general, she says, you're better off avoiding talking about your career crossroads with anyone who works at your company "so you don't burn any bridges."
4. Take the first step.
Just what is that first step? You probably already know, Capland says. "We're usually clear about what our first step is, even if it's hard or you're really nervous about it." For example, for the marketing exec who isn't sure whether to stay in his current job, the first step was doing some internet research to see what other jobs might be available for him. At this point, she says, he's gone beyond that step. He's reached out to a few other companies and gone on some job interviews.
Whatever you do, don't wait too long. Many people make the mistake of hesitating to take action when they know they're at a crossroads, she says. "They get paralyzed and nervous, think they're not good enough or valuable enough. They don't ask for what they want because they're afraid they will hear 'no.'"
But sometimes, people feel like they're at a career crossroads because a company or big customer is in trouble or perhaps is being acquired. "People see it but they can't seem to make a move," Capland says. "They wait until they're fired and then they're surprised. They could have been much further along if they had started six months earlier.
Besides, there's never been a better time to look for work. "This is a buyer's market--it's an awesome time to go get a job--that's what I hear from the people I'm working with," Capland says. "There's so much out there right now that opportunity is falling from the trees."