Want a Change, But Don’t Know What?

Talent Management

May 2, 2013

by Marshall Goldsmith

It’s one of the toughest decisions we face in the workplace. Do we stay at our job, or do we go?

I’m assuming the choice is up to you — you’re not being forced out, and the new job you’re considering is roughly equal to the one you’re in now — and you’re not running to a better situation that pays better, offers more opportunities or is more congenial with your lifestyle.

It’s a tough decision when the status quo is neither so great nor so miserable that whether to bail out is a no-brainer. In those conditions, you can seek advice from other people, but even if you got unanimous feedback, the only opinion that matters in the end is your inner voice. But how do you know you’re hearing that inner voice correctly?

Distinguishing between our professional and personal mojo can clarify what you need to change. It’s either you (what you bring to the job) or it (what the job brings to you). The higher you go and the closer you are to your dream job, the more challenging this stay or go decision can seem. But when you’re clear about what created the decision to stay or leave, the decision becomes obvious.

I remember when an acquaintance named Pierce was suddenly complaining about his job. I had never heard this kind of talk from him. Even more puzzling, he was at the peak of success. The year before he had pulled off a string of deals, and his CEO, in part to reward him but also to make sure he didn’t jump to the competition, offered him a three-year contract, saying, “Think of a compensation package that will make you happy.”

Open-checkbook offers don’t come along every day, but energy was coursing through Pierce’s arteries, and his CEO sensed it and wanted to retain it. Pierce worked out a contract that elevated him from the company’s middle ranks to the upper echelons. It also made him one of its 20 highest-paid people. For Pierce, life wasn’t good, it was great.

What Pierce could not have foreseen was the dramatic change in his CEO’s attitude toward him. Suddenly he was front and center on the CEO’s radar. He liked the face time with the boss, but it meant the CEO felt entitled to call him at all hours to question his priorities, follow up on petty details or make silly demands.

“It was as if he felt giving me everything I wanted gave him permission to torture me,” said Pierce. “It was perverse.”

After a year Pierce’s abilities as a great dealmaker had not diminished, but the rewards, meaning, and happiness the job provided were low, largely due to how his CEO was treating him.

No matter how high you are in one area, you can be derailed by another. And if you’re experiencing low satisfaction in what the job is bringing you, then you might need to change the job.

Pierce was in an odd situation. His skills were intact, but the environment had deteriorated to the point where he felt he had to change jobs. He told the CEO he was quitting.

The CEO surprised him again, with another open-ended offer. “I don’t want you to leave,” he said. “What would make you happy?”

Pierce’s CEO was wise. He realized that even though Pierce was his subordinate, Pierce was the decision-maker, so he went into salesperson mode to in?uence Pierce.

Seizing the moment, Pierce said, “You have to get off my back and let me do my job.”

Until that moment, the CEO had had no idea he had been torturing his star executive and making his work life untenable. The two men talked it out, the CEO promised to stop crowding Pierce, and Pierce decided to stay.

He changed his situation rather than himself, and his CEO was wise enough to change himself, or his need for control, rather than the situation.