Career enjoyment or fulfillment may seem like a luxury these days. You have a job, so what if you are not fulfilled by it? If you find yourself waiting for things to change or feel like you are caught on a never ending moving sidewalk, it may be time to push the pause button to actively assess your career vision to make sure it is still the best path for you; and then figure out how to bridge the gap between where you are now and where you want to be.
Reflecting on where you want to be is a critical first step, because it’s hard to take action if you do not know where you are going. I often hear my clients say, “I would be okay if I knew what I wanted to do, but all I can tell you is that this is not it.” So let’s start there. Understanding what is not working is just as important as defining what works in your current situation.
Take Stock of Where You Are Now
Review your career highlights and lowlights: Starting with your first job, think back to the times when you were highly satisfied with your career and identify what specific aspects of your roles, projects, and activities you enjoyed. For your career lowlights, remember the situations where your energy and morale was depleted, document which tasks, behavior,s and experiences caused unnecessary stress and unhappiness.
By reviewing her career highlights and lowlights, “Jane” was able to determine that while she enjoyed the start-up phase of new consulting engagements, her day-to-day needed to include more opportunities to develop and manage teams. Additionally, by going back to her days as a barista during college, Jane was able to describe the satisfaction she derived from training employees and seeing tangible results; she realized that her inability to see tangible results and relentless travel schedule as a consultant was a major source of dissatisfaction.
Jane’s insights were used to redefine her career expectations, by indicating what activities she would like to do more of in the future and what activities she wanted to avoid all together. It is critical to be realistic here. When you define which activities you would like to avoid (e.g., administrative tasks), in some instances you may be able to outsource certain activities; however, there may be activities that are critical to your role or desired role that you cannot avoid (e.g., sales and business development).
Get in Touch with Your Values
This is another worthwhile exploration. List five to six values such as creativity, balance, family, personal growth, bravery, community, and financial independence, rank your values in order of importance, and define what each value personally means to you. Defining each value helps you to personalize your values. For “Bryan,” freedom means the ability to make decisions about his life, in particular how he spends his time and the flexibility to direct his energy in activities that are personally and professionally worthwhile.
Then think about the ways in which you practice each value at work and in your personal life. If you find that you are not practicing the value as much as you would like, brainstorm two to three actions that will enable you to start practicing each value consistently. While Bryan rated freedom as an important value, his action rating was quite low, so we brainstormed several actions to plug his values gap, such as putting a career plan in place and developing criteria against which he could evaluate whether a project or assignment suited his requirements.
Think through what else you enjoy doing: What other interests do you have that are not incorporated in your personal or professional life? Do not worry about how random your thoughts sound; simply list all of the things that you enjoy doing.
In light of a layoff, “Pam” was trying to decide whether to stay in finance or pursue something else that had nothing to do with finance or her MBA. Pam had enjoyed dance since the age of five and as an adult took dance classes whenever she could find the time. However her career decisions never took into account her creative side and always erred on the side of what seemed to be the right and practical thing to do.
Sometimes my clients find it useful to describe their dream job and then compare it to what they are currently doing to detail what is missing. When you complete these steps you will have a wealth of insights.
Define Where You Want to Be
This is the fun phase, but admittedly it can be overwhelming as you try to make sense of your insights.
Organize a brainstorming brunch with five friends: Make sure you invite a diverse group of friends, ideally including someone who challenges and inspires you to act boldly, someone who is probing and asks questions to ensure that you cover your bases, and a creative friend who is full of ideas. The key is to surround yourself with positive, supportive people who can build on and expand your ideas. Your goal is to share your insights with the group, share some of your preliminary thoughts and ideas, and be prescriptive about how the group can help you to make sense of your insights.
Craft an experiment to test your vision or ideas: Once you have a good idea of your next step, an experiment is a low-risk approach to testing the water before you make radical changes. An experiment can range from taking a leave of absence to pursue a short-term assignment in your area of interest; an international assignment or a special project in a different function or business area; creating your own training program where you work with someone to learn a new skill on the job; or an interactive research project where you meet with people to learn more about your desired next steps and diversify your network. The key to remember here is that an effective experiment is conducted for a discrete period of time, articulates your assumptions, and lays out what you expect to learn. Once you have completed your experiment you can decide on the best course of action, and this would be a great time to re-engage your five friends again to help you define your next steps.
After exploring what her career could look like if she made room for dance, Pam decided to focus her finance skills in the performing arts space. She has since completed a certificate in nonprofit accounting and a consulting engagement with a contemporary dance company. She is now in the process of defining her next steps.
There is no substitute for the hard work that is required. These steps take time, courage, and a willingness to deal with the unknown. It is important to note that the results do not always point to a career change or reinvention; sometimes they lead to tweaking a few things about your current role, changing your environment, or a clearer picture of your career vision. It may lead to an exciting side project that enables you to apply your creativity, or a lifestyle changes that allows you to focus on your family or fitness goals. Whatever your outcome, the act of pausing to reflect and experiment can yield untold changes that positively impact your happiness, career fulfillment, engagement, and productivity.
All names have been changed to maintain client confidentiality. Michelle Awuku-Tatum is a career advancement and transition coach and the founder of myfactor Coaching & Consulting. Michelle has coached more than 150 high potential leaders in the United States, Europe, and Africa to thrive during career or entrepreneurial transitions. She holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. If you have a question about reinventing your career or navigating a transition, feel free to drop Michelle a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.