Does your job offer a way to get you where you want to go?
Whatever your goals are, the next nut to crack is whether you can achieve them in your current job. Not so much? Then it's time to think about leaning out of your position and into pursuits that will set you up for what you really want from your career.
Evaluate yourself. Is greater authority or higher pay what you're after? Take an honest look at your contributions to the company and how you're viewed by both colleagues and higher-ups.
"If your boss isn't involving you in key projects or being an advocate for you, then you might want to lean out more," advises Stefanie Smith, an executive coach at Stratex in New York City. Direct more effort into, say, networking to develop contacts that may lead you to a new job where you'll be more valued or activities that will enhance your personal brand, such as microblogging or establishing a regular Twitter feed.
Not sure what your prospects are at work? Ask your boss what it would take to get promoted. "If there isn't anything you can do, you should be leaning out," Smith says.
Examine long-term trends in your industry. Consider whether changing economic conditions or technologies make it likely that your job may eventually be farmed out to someone or something who'll do the work for a lot less, either domestically or overseas -- an increasingly common development in many fields.
Professionals in "mid-skilled" jobs, from credit analysts to X-ray technicians, are particularly at risk, says Tom Cooley, an economics professor at New York University's Stern School of Business: "The ones who are the most vulnerable are people doing professional but routine jobs that can be automated or done by someone else."
Has your company downsized more than once in the past few years? Is changing technology making parts of your field or job obsolete? Have the head honchos pulled back on resources for your division or nixed initiatives to grow business? One or more "yes" answers is not a good sign.
Some of those factors came into play a few years back when, at age 57, Bob Shirilla, an engineer with 30 years of experience, decided to lean out from his job at EDS, an information technology company now owned by Hewlett-Packard.
Shirilla had been the "lead dog" on teams that installed IT systems for major corporations, but as project demand tapered off, his department was becoming less profitable -- and raises were getting smaller. Shirilla felt that proving his value to his employer was only going to get harder. So he quit to try his hand at building businesses that were a little more fun and left him more leisure time.
Shirilla and his wife, JoAnn, launched two Internet stores: Simply Custom Bags, a tote-bag retailer, and Keepsakes, Etc., which sells sympathy gifts and other items. Both sites have flourished -- they now have several employees -- yet typically require Shirilla to put in only about six hours a day, vs. 10 when he worked at EDS. His flexible schedule gives him plenty of time for golf and to travel with JoAnn, and he's learned valuable new skills, like search engine optimization. "I like the challenge," says the Poland, Ohio, resident.
Figure out your cultural fit. Even if your company is doing well, the job may no longer fill your needs -- or you may no longer match the typical employee profile. Perhaps you've been at the place a long while and the position is very demanding at a time in your life when you want to slow down, or the company has a history of pushing out workers over 50.
In that case, career experts say, it's critical to put effort into seeding other options beforehand, because you're likely to have a harder time than younger colleagues finding a new gig.
That's what MONEY reader Mark Quiello, 57, of Pompton Lakes, N.J., is doing. A middle manager at a major telecom company, he says, "I'm happy with the status quo." Quiello's goal is to remain in his position until he's ready to retire. He's planning to get a certification in project management that will keep him valuable -- but figures it will also help him with a Plan B if something goes awry at his job and he has to find a new one. He says, "I can't sit on my laurels."
Quiello is practicing what New York City career coach Roy Cohen calls opportunistic career management -- continually cultivating new skills and connections that can aid you in your current job but also help you parachute to a smooth landing if things don't work out. Says Cohen: "You have to look out for yourself and protect your interests."
How far out would you need to lean?
Before you make any major moves, Friedman, author of Total Leadership, suggests trying "a series of small experiments" to improve your work situation. It's possible that you'll need to make only a slight change to become much happier and more effective in every sphere of your life. "Too many people feel more trapped than they need to feel," Friedman says.
Experiment with your schedule. Say your office culture requires everyone to work until 8 p.m. You might ask your boss if you can leave at 6 p.m. on Thursdays and turn off your cell, adding that you think it will boost your overall productivity -- and that you'd like to get her assessment of how it's working in a month.
"Make it about making your boss more successful," Friedman says. Even a small move that doesn't require your supervisor's permission, like hitting the gym at lunch, may change how you feel about your workday.
A bonus: Shifting some time away from work can force you to use your time there more effectively, Friedman says. Your performance really may improve, winning you more latitude to do your job in a way that works for you -- without abandoning your career. "People often discover they've got more room to move than they thought," Friedman says.
Build on your changes. It can take several steps, made over a period of months or even years, to figure out how far you need to go to attain greater satisfaction with your work.
Ask Tai Goodwin, 40. After joining CA Technology in 2007, she considered going after a director's position, a step up from her job as an instructional designer of educational programs. "It was the next logical step," she says. But she realized that as a woman in a male-dominated IT culture, she never felt completely comfortable. She dreaded the corporate politics a bigger job would involve and worried about the time away from her daughter, Shayna, now 10.
So Goodwin began experimenting. First she negotiated a telecommuting arrangement while maintaining her six-figure salary. Then, to give herself more options, she began taking online courses in career coaching. After getting her certification, she started a part-time coaching business in 2008. Finding that she was building steady clients, Goodwin moved in 2009 from Philadelphia to the Twin Cities area, where the cost of living was lower and going out on her own would be more affordable. She continued telecommuting.
Last year Goodwin finally quit to run her coaching business full-time. She's earning less but feels good about where she is. "I am building my way back up," says Goodwin. "I wouldn't trade the freedom I have for another six-figure income."
How will you swing the change financially?
As Goodwin has found, leaning out often entails a financial hit. No matter how jazzed you are to make a change, "you still have to put food on your plate and feed your family," notes Jeff Stibel, CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility, a credit ratings provider for small businesses. Here's how to pull it off:
Line up the financing. Review the resources you have to tap and whether doing so will endanger your long-term security. Having ample retirement savings, a pension, or a paid-off home will give you more breathing room. For example, Bob Shirilla could afford to try his Internet businesses because he'd saved prodigiously for retirement and could use his pension to supplement the income from his new ventures.
Lower your operating expenses. Think about what trade-offs you're willing to make, suggests adviser John Morris. To afford his transition from COO to college professor, for instance, Jay Friedlander and his wife moved from a large ocean-view condo in Portland to a 1,500-square-foot fixer-upper in Bar Harbor, and cut dining out from 12 times a month to two.
A self-described lifelong "pathological saver," he regularly reviews the family's spending on spreadsheets to identify areas where they can save (no cable TV), while also allowing for some splurges (an upcoming trip to Europe). "We don't live an ascetic life," says Friedlander, adding, "I'm a big believer in running the numbers. That gives you power."
Set realistic parameters. Put a time limit on your career shift at first -- say you'll try your new approach for three years and if you haven't made a go of it by then, you'll lean back in, Morris recommends.
The older you are, the more conservative you should be, adds Stibel, especially if your plan involves starting your own business. "Your ability to take crazy risks that turn you into Mark Zuckerberg goes away," he says. Instead, focus on a small venture that meets a known need in a nearby marketplace. "Think little and think local," he says.
In general, Friedman believes, small, incremental changes often add up to a life that is much more meaningful. "I see it happen all the time," he says.
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