The fifteenth and final season of American Idol drawing to a close this year reminded me of an important career lesson that came with the departure of one of its original judges. With the announcement that he was leaving American Idol after 13 seasons, last November marked the realization of my unspoken fear: That Randy Jackson would be brave enough to make a career change before I did.
After almost a decade with my current organization, I began to see myself through the same lens of pity I viewed Randy. Randy, who was part of the original regime that included Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Ryan Seacrest, saw Simon and Paula leave to pursue bigger and better dreams. While those pursuits failed to meet expectations, at least they tried. Randy, on the other hand, remained the loyal “dawg” and became less relevant with each new better-paid and better-celebrated judge wooed to the table. He became the lonely grandfather relegated to a nursing home – full of wisdom but without an audience interested in listening.
Like him, I had watched several colleagues bravely set off to chase their dreams. Start a consulting firm in Liberia? Check. Return to school to pursue an art degree? Why not! Become a guidance counselor at a boarding school in Rwanda? Indeed. Where they boldly took a leap of faith to grow their careers, I stayed cocooned in what was comfortable. Out of fear? I thought so at first. Whether of failure or of success, I wasn’t sure.
But fear didn’t paint the whole picture or tell the complete story. I discovered three other reasons that turned out to be surprisingly positive. Factors I would encourage you to consider as you decide if or when to make a career change.
1. Are you actually ready to go? Because I had spent far too much time reading expert advice and listening to well-meaning friends, I almost missed out on that truth. When I would ask myself if I should leave, my voice was rarely the loudest to answer. Everything and everyone kept telling me that I should go, but when I listened intently to my own voice I heard myself say not yet. And comfort and fear had nothing to do with my reasons. Here’s an exercise that can prove useful for you. Ask yourself: Should I leave? Assuming you answer yes, spend time writing out the whys and then close your eyes and speak those reasons out loud one by one. For example, I should leave because the work is no longer fulfilling. I should leave because I no longer bring value to my team. I should leave because there are no challenges for growth. You get the point. After speaking each reason, stop and quietly recall whose voice you heard. If yours was not the first and/or the loudest, it’s doubtful that you’re truly ready to go.
2. How much more do you have left to contribute? During my last performance review I questioned my Executive Director about what value she sees that I can still bring to the organization. A question I’d been pondering but one that couldn’t be answered in a vacuum. I was mainly concerned that what I had left to contribute might not be what the company needed. That conversation helped me to realize I was on the right track. That the legacy I wanted to leave would be instrumental in the growth and sustainability of the company. I’m blessed to have a boss who is approachable with a wide-open-door policy. If your boss’ door is padlocked shut, don’t fret; there’s still hope. Find a trusted co-worker who can provide objective feedback on your work, the goals you are seeking to achieve, and how they align with the company’s overall mission. You can also find your company’s strategic plan or annual report and pore over the material with special attention to how your role helps or hinders its goals. For example, if the majority of your work is focused on increasing your company’s presence in an international market yet its strategic goal for the next 3-5 years is the domestic market; there is a misalignment. However, if the work that you’re doing now, or more importantly, the work that you wish to do in the future, is in sync with your company’s vision, there’s reason to stay. You can still make a significant impact.
3. How much more do you have left to learn? I started with my organization in an entry-level position at age 24 and progressed to my current title after several promotions. Five years into this position I made it a point to regularly check in with myself about what I was learning and how I was growing. Because of the size of my organization I knew there wouldn’t be room for another promotion, but there was opportunity to gain transferable skills beyond my title. When considering whether to make a move, look past the limitations of your current position. Are there projects within the organization that are outside the traditional scope of your job title that you can spearhead? What skills do you bring to the table to lead said project and what skills will you gain from it? Consider what that can look like, draft a brief proposal, and reach out to your boss for an honest discussion. Bolted door or not, eventually you have to learn to knock – and keep knocking until it’s opened.
I admit to having panicked momentarily when I learned about Randy. But after calming down and taking these steps, I eventually decided that the best decision for me was to remain 2-3 more years to accomplish some very strategic organizational and personal career goals.
The takeaway here is not that you should stay or you should go. The takeaway is to listen to advice from trusted sources and then take time to quiet the voices that aren’t yours. Once you’ve done that, measure the advice against what your voice is saying is best.
Maybe Randy followed these same steps. And where his led him to leave, mine led me to stay. Either way, we each had to make the decision that was best for our specific situation. And so do you.