When you are faced with a career change, and you're not quite sure where you want to go, don't waste time speculating. Sell yourself, get real offers and then decide.
We all face times of transition. Sometimes these changes are planned, such as graduating from college or pre-set retirement. Sometimes they are unplanned, such as dismissal from a job or company bankruptcy.
Over the years, thousands of people have told me the stories of their lives and their hopes for the future as they anticipate change. A frequent obstacle I see when professionals are facing big life decisions is analysis paralysis. They get lost in debating the desirability of options they don't even have yet!
My friend Jessica is an excellent example. Jessica had a fantastic career in a top professional-services company. In spite of her outstanding contribution to the business, she was in her early 60s, and, according to this company's published guidelines, it was time to go. She had no interest in traditional retirement. She wanted an exciting new career challenge, but wasn't sure what that might be. We discussed her future and she started thinking about leadership in the nonprofit sector.
"Perhaps I should be a leader in a human services firm," she said 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!"
Her face changed expression as she began to debate with herself. "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," she 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."
Jessica had similar debates with herself about consulting, private equity, and a couple of other future careers. As she began her search for a new job, she didn't do very well. Some potential organizations saw her as arrogant. They felt she showed more interest in "What can you do for me?" than "What can I do for you?" She asked a lot of questions she could have answered herself had she done more homework; they felt she communicated with ambiguity and showed a lack of genuine desire for the new job.
Offers First, Decisions Later
Jessica became a little defensive as we discussed some of the feedback from the companies where she had interviewed. "I am not really sure what I want," she 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 Jessica 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
Jessica changed her attitude, did her homework and started going for real offers. She dropped her "are you good enough for me?" questioning and started selling herself and her potential to make a contribution. She quit doing informational interviews that made it seem as if she were judging the organization's worth and focused on organizations that might be a fit.
Within a few months, she had some real alternatives. Although there was much she liked about the nonprofit world, she realized that her options there were not nearly as exciting (to her) as leadership in a venture capital firm. She decided that she could help society more by making money and giving it to other nonprofit leaders who would be better at human services management than she was. She deeply respected the specific board members and co-workers in her new VC firm and decided that she was going to have a lot of fun as a venture capitalist.
If you're facing transition and you are getting stuck in a mental debate among competing potential career options, 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 always nice to be asked.