Phil Palmer identifies the factors indicating it's time for a career change.

Over the last 15 years as an executive recruiter, I have encountered a number of seasoned executives who find themselves questioning their career choices. These individuals are successful, ambitious and well compensated, but the 'fire' has left them. When evaluating their day-to-day work, they are hopeful, but not confident. Something is missing... no joy or passion for what used to inspire them just a few years before. I have found that when discussing career plans, one phrase sums it up: "When faith turns to hope...move on. Hope is not an effective strategy."

Employment growth patterns
Simply put, there are four distinct steps in a person's career. Each step varies in length from a few months to three or four years. I believe a consultant to IBM years ago referred to this pattern as "Just say know!" Like any other executive, I, too, resonate with what he was saying.

Step 1 - When we take on a new career, there is curiosity and excitement, but we also admit that we don't know that we don't know. This is a time when we are both manageable and a little frightened; it is a time to learn. A mentor can be most helpful during this period.

Step 2 - The next step is when we know that we don't know. Intimidated, challenged, driven and growing, this step can compromise a person's personal life because it seems as though there just isn't enough time to complete what needs to be done. Some individuals quit during this step and forsake their career.

Step 3 - The most satisfying and enjoyable period of our career is when we don't know that we know. We are effective, productive, respected by our peers and earning an excellent income. There is a feeling that all the hard work has paid off and that we have 'arrived'.

Step 4 - The last episode is when we know that we know. Surprisingly, at this time, we find ourselves impatient, cynical and often irritable, feeling that we are now underutilised, unappreciated and not growing. We question our decision-making and will blame others for our circumstance.

The entire process repeats itself a number of times during our working life, but each time step 4 becomes more uncomfortable. We have grown older and acknowledge that there are fewer spaces at the 'top of the ladder'. We must now take action, yet also appreciate Einstein's advice, "often, the solution to a problem is on another plane than the origin of the problem." To this dilemma, I offer this unique career navigation tool: 'The Joy of Fishing'.

Once we have determined that something has to change, we are faced with the mechanics of how to refocus our career and get noticed by a new boss, new organisation or maybe even a new discipline.

There are a number of suggestions, but we must understand that the sometimes heavy-handed approach will no longer achieve the results in mature career decision-making that it did in our 30s.

Competition, politics and the challenges of bureaucratic organisations require a new skill set and employment philosophy. Our early careers are driven by the 'hunt' for money, power, influence and recognition. When making a move in our 40s and 50s, it is about 'fishing'. What I mean by this is that the goal is not to chase the right job, the perfect boss or the stimulating environment we require. We must learn to attract the opportunity, to understand seduction, to be willing to 'let the fish catch us'. Any seasoned fisherman understands that when he returns from his favourite lake, he will have caught nothing - that large trout actually caught him.

Fishing for the next job
In the absence of an agent or recruiter, all executives must master the fishing process to achieve their career goals when they know that they can't stay with their existing position or employer. This is particularly when they find themselves in a narrow niche, where so many individuals know one another and thus secrets are so hard to keep.

There are five essential steps to getting that next job.

1.) Get recognised, acknowledged as a unique and worthwhile addition to another organisation or division - gently let your close friends know that you are losing enthusiasm for your current work, that you are not critical or defeated, but professionally concerned. Let them know that you don't feel that you are doing as much as you can for your current employer.

2.) Learn to write professionally about your expertise. Hire a ghost writer, ask your spouse or a friend, but write about what you know, and get it published in a magazine that features articles about topics that interest you and where your expertise would be valuable to its readers.

3.) Speak at conferences, symposiums, product introductions, etc. Look good, speak well of your company. Get to a podium. Opine with enthusiasm, share your views and knowledge.

4.) Tactfully deny any interest in leaving your position or company, if approached by a senior executive of the firm. Your future employer does not want someone who is mentally unemployed. They want to discover you, not the other way around. Remember, you are the bait and they are the fish. You need to let them know that you are not interested in leaving, but might consider looking in to an opportunity where their philosophies are in line with your own.

5.) Volunteer more often and in a more visible fashion. Any causes to which your future organisation subscribes should be investigated and seriously considered. The beneficiary of this suggestion may be a charity you may never have even considered. The caution here is to network inconspicuously.

Seduction is an art form and can be a very effective method to getting to where you need to be. Try to avoid the 'take charge' response to a future employer's courting. Let them buy, don't sell.

As long as you wish to work for someone and you are not wishing to take on a consulting or entrepreneurial opportunity, accept the fact decisions are made by the organisation, on its terms. There will be a time to lead the orchestra after you get the new job, but in this process it is best to be respectful and confident, a valuable future member of the team, not the conductor.

As a final element to this piece, there are a few employment rules which, although seemingly etched in cement, are not immutable. Here are a few of them:

  • companies hire the most qualified executives. Employment is not a science- decisions are made by people for their own reasons and therefore do not need to make sense to those who come in second place. Timing is, indeed, everything;
  • strategic hiring is a legitimate and effective policy. Hiring is more often a response to a management mistake. Not knowing that a critical executive was leaving the company or a particular strategy turned out to be more successful than anticipated creates the need. Proactive hiring is rare... most employers are effective at reacting to a changing market place; and
  • pay is based on anticipated performance and historical precedent. Employee pay is based on a number of criteria. What other companies have to pay for the skill set is, of course, a critical element, but during tough times, employers which are driven by shareholders look to the productivity ratio... what the employee will generate in revenue versus the cost of his/her acquisition, training and salary. That figure has been going up over the years primarily because of the rising costs of benefits. This ratio ranges from 300% to 1000%. For the productive employee generating (or saving) revenue at the higher percentage, he/she will likely feel more secure in the new job and may even experience a less stressful work environment.
  • Effective employment decision- making is at the heart of free enterprise and productivity, but in many ways it is also flawed. Understanding its foibles will help us to navigate our career in the most effective fashion. Applying some of these principles is the first step to a happier and more productive working life.

    By Phil Palmer

    Phil Palmer, Certified Personnel Consultant, is a concentric executive recruiter in the US. Tel: +1 970-221-5630; email: