With Martin G. Moore

Episode #136

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Making a career move

How do you know when it’s time to leave an organisation?

Like almost every question in leadership, the answer is – it depends. Every situation is completely different, and only you know the factors that affect you: the workplace culture, your personal circumstances, the impact your boss has on you, and your ultimate career aspirations.

But wouldn’t it be great to have a framework that could help you make smart decisions whenever you face a career dilemma?!

This episode provides that framework, and some scenarios to help you figure out how to apply it.

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Episode #136 Should I Stay or Should I Go? Making a career move

One of the most common questions we’re asked in terms of career planning is: how do I know when it’s time to leave my organisation?

The answer to that is the same as it is for almost every question in leadership. It depends. Every situation is completely different and only you know the factors that affect you, your personal circumstances, the workplace culture, your boss’ impact on you, both good and bad, and your ultimate career aspirations.

A quick disclaimer, please don’t construe any of this as advice for your own personal situation, but instead, use it as a guide and roadmap to help you to work through whatever decisions you may have to make.

why you need a robust decision-making framework

One of the reasons that many people find it so difficult to make a decision in pretty much any area of their life is that they don’t have a solid foundation for doing so. What they lack is a clear set of criteria that they can examine to filter the information in front of them, evaluate a range of options and confidently choose the best outcome.

Of course, major decisions are, more often than not, mired in complexity and ambiguity so a framework and a process for decision making are absolutely essential.

I developed a framework some years ago that has five basic elements. It served me pretty well throughout my senior executive career and now I’m going to share that framework with you:

  1. Know your values

  2. Know your strengths

  3. Know your ultimate career and life objectives

  4. Know how to assess risk

  5. Know what’s most important to you in any role

With that foundation, you’ll be able to easily assess the pros and cons of any role, either existing or potential. You can even perhaps use a trusted advisor or mentor to give you a sanity check to make sure you haven’t missed anything.

This is a pretty good way to approach a conundrum of the significance of staying in a job or choosing to move on.

My experience with decision making in career moves

Before I get into the framework, I just want to tell you a quick story to highlight a point. In 2013, I had to make a big career decision. I was working as Senior Vice President for Marketing at Aurizon, a thriving transportation business. It was listed as an ASX Top 30 company after a very successful IPO only a couple of years earlier. I’d been offered the Chief Executive role at CS Energy and I had to decide whether to stay or go.

Just to give you a bit of context, I wasn’t directly reporting to the CEO at Aurizon at that time, but I had a pretty strong development path to the next level. I’d just come through a purple patch of signing some long-term contracts with our major customers, which were worth several billions of dollars in revenue over their life. I was really well paid. Apart from my base salary and significant short-term incentive payments, I also had a bunch of long-term incentive awards, in the form of share options, which were sitting very close to me in my near future. They were worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars on vesting. To leave, I would have to potentially walk away from a very big chunk of change.

CS Energy on the other hand was performing terribly. The energy market was oversupplied, which kept electricity prices in a deep trough. The culture of the organisation was terrible. There was a potential for a stock market privatisation listing, but that was a really long part. Even though CS Energy could match my base pay, my performance upside was extremely limited (at a tiny fraction of the upside I headed Aurizon).

When I was offered the CEO role at CS Energy, I asked Chairman Ross Rolfe for a couple of days to think it’s through. Russell is a great guy and we’d worked together a little bit in the preceding few years, so we knew each other just enough to de-risk the situation for both of us. I went through my process using my proven framework. I analysed every piece of information available. I spoke to two of my key mentors at length. After 48 hours, I called Ross back and said, ‘mate, I’ve thought this through quite carefully. I really appreciate the offer and it means the world to me that you would take a chance on me as a new CEO, but unfortunately, I have to decline.’

I knew Ross was disappointed, but I felt as though I’d made the right choice. Then, I immediately jumped on a plane to Perth, on the other side of the country for a few days of business. For those of you who don’t live in Australia, Brisbane to Perth is about the same distance as going from New York to LA. As soon as I got on that plane, I couldn’t stop thinking about my decision and it just didn’t sit well with me.

A couple of days later, I called Ross back and said, ‘mate, I don’t want to seem flaky. I know I declined the job offer, but it hasn’t been sitting well with me. I think I may have made the wrong call. Would the board still consider me if I changed my decision and accepted the job?’.

Don’t worry the irony of being indecisive when accepting the CEO role was not lost on me.

But the rest is history. In hindsight, was this the right call? Absolutely. So, why didn’t I make it the first time around? There were two reasons; the first was fear of letting go of my own risk aversion, and the second was, the incorrect weighting of my success criteria.

The risk of moving was much higher than the risk of staying. The potential privatisation was nothing more than a doodle on the back of the beer mat, and there was a high likelihood it wouldn’t come off. If it did though, there was a massive potential upside. In terms of my success criteria, I knew that money wasn’t in my top three criteria for assessing a role, but walking away from that much cash at Aurizon was, understandably, very difficult.

It really put my priorities to the test. The moral of the story is, you’ll be more inclined to stay for longer where you are because of the uncertainty and the risk of moving. People typically tend to stay too long in any role because of this factor.

Five criteria for successful decision-making when faced with either an employment dilemma or an opportunity

#1. Know your values

The most important frame is your personal values. What things do you hold dear? And why? What won’t you compromise no matter what? You can’t afford to be in a role that’s in direct conflict with your personal values.

The first step is to know what your values are with a real sense of clarity and certainty. Then, you need to make a judgement as best as you possibly can as to whether the organisation’s values are consistent with your own. This is clearly much easier to work out for an organisation that you’re already in, as opposed to one that you are considering moving to.

#2. Know your strengths

Strength is not just something you’re good at, it’s a combination of two things, what you’re good at and what you love. For example, I’m really good at mathematics, but I don’t enjoy it. I’d rather not be anywhere near it. I like to stay up in context and strategy. So, it’s not a strength, even though I’m good at it. On the other side, I love singing, but I’m complete shit so that’s never going to be a strength either. It doesn’t matter how much I love it, it’s not a strength for me.

Knowing what your strengths are will help you to assess your fit with any potential role.

#3. Know your ultimate career and life objectives

This one is tricky but essential. Where do you ultimately want to end up? Unless you know what drives you in your core, it’s easy to get caught up on the merry-go-round of just working harder and hanging in for the next promotion. This is often driven by money and status, two really poor reasons to go for anything.

12+ years before I took the role at CS Energy, I knew that my ultimate career objective was to be CEO of a major corporation, but much more importantly, I actually knew why. I am driven by impact. I knew that the higher I went up the ladder, the more impact I was going to be able to have. The money was a by-product of this, not a goal in itself.

For Em and me, our mantra is ‘income follows impact’. If we can manage to find a market and make an impact in the world, we deserve to be rewarded for this. But if we don’t have an impact, we don’t deserve to be rewarded.

When I set that impact objective, (what’s now over 20 years ago) I never imagined how much impact I’d be able to have in this business. It certainly paints a picture of why I’m doing this and not still running a large corporation.

The key point here is that if you know exactly where you want to be, it colours every single decision you make. You’ll see things in the context of whether they take you closer or further away from your ultimate objective. This is an essential frame for getting your decisions about jobs moves right.

#4. Know how to assess risk

In any career role, there are potential pros and cons, upsides and downsides, risks and opportunities. It’s much easier to assess risk with better information. Be aware of how this plays out in a job evaluation context. You know, your current situation really well, so your risk assessment is likely to be more accurate. If you’re faced with an opportunity that you really like, for one reason or another, you’re more likely to discount the risks and focus on the potential upside.

Remember, the risk is a combination of two things. The first is the likelihood that a particular event may occur. The second is the severity of the consequences if it does. Therefore, it’s important to evaluate any risks as clinically and comprehensively, as you possibly can.

And remember, you’re evaluating the balance of risk and reward, which leads to looking at four possible scenarios when you’re contemplating a job move.

  • What is the risk if I take this opportunity?

  • What reward do I likely forego if I don’t take this opportunity?

  • What is the risk if I stay where I am?

  • What reward do I likely forego if I don’t stay where I am?

#5. Know what’s most important to you in any role

This really sorts out the dogs from the fleas. Knowing what the most important things are to you, really deeply, is the best guide you can have when deciding to stay where you are or to leave. It can be applied to your existing role or any number of competing opportunities in order to sort them out.

Years ago, I started working on a ranked list of what things are most important to me. To tell you the truth, it hasn’t really changed much over the years. I’ve used it successfully to navigate any potential opportunities I’ve had, even though I don’t need to use this anymore because of the business I’m in, I want to just give you an idea of the types of things I had on this list.

Impact – how much of a difference can I make in this role, as opposed to any other?

Who am I working for? – This speaks to autonomy, culture and constraints

Challenge – How much will I develop, stretch and grow? How much opportunity is there for me to grow beyond where I start in this role?

Money, and all the way down to number eight, where that was minimising my nights away from home.

Now, the reason I initially got my decision wrong to take on the CEO role at CS Energy was because I subconsciously elevated number four; money. This really put my principles to the test, believe me.

how to apply this framework

Let’s look at a few common scenarios for why you might want to leave your current role or organisation. For each, I’ll share some pointers on how you might apply the framework that we’ve just been through.

Scenario #1. When there’s no opportunity for advancement

Often, you’ll just see that there’s really nowhere for you to go in your organisation. This is a natural consequence of the pointy end of the pyramid as you go up the levels in a business. For example, you might be an executive ready to step into a CEO role. If by chance a new CEO was appointed it’s likely that, on average, you’ll have to wait another five years for that opportunity to re-emerge.

In order to evaluate that you need to look critically at a few things:

  • Do your values fit with the new CEO?

  • How burning is your ambition for career progression?

  • What if that CEO loves the company and performs really, really well.

  • If you choose to stay, can you develop and grow under the new CEO? In other words, can staying where you are take you further towards your ultimate career objective?

  • What other opportunities are likely to be out there for you that might take you closer towards your long-term objective?

Now for any ambitious person, waiting in the wings as the bridesmaid can be really frustrating, but don’t knee-jerk and leave out of spite just because you didn’t get the role you wanted. Evaluate it clinically first.

Scenario #2. When you have a terrible boss

This is one of the most common scenarios we’re asked about. A terrible boss is a constant burden on you. It is a really long day in the office when you have a bad boss, but as we know, there are plenty of bad bosses out there. Unless you know, the person you’d be going to work for, this remains a risk regardless.

I always like to think of this in terms of the constraints you need to work under, and we mentioned this before. If your boss is a micromanager or control freak, that will constrain your autonomy. If your boss is impulsive and reactive under pressure, that will constrain your ability to make good decisions. If your boss is indecisive, that will constrain your ability to create momentum in your team. If your boss is weak and has no appetite for change, that will constrain your ability to achieve high performance. If your boss is unethical, it will constrain your ability to operate according to your values.

Bottom line, once you understand the constraints, you simply need to decide whether you’re happy to live within them or not. If you are, do everything within your power to lead well, knowing the constraints and boundaries that your boss puts you in. If you’re not, vote with your feet.

Scenario #3. When you aren’t being sufficiently challenged

Sometimes, the excitement and challenge simply goes out of a role for no apparent reason. Some people like the comfort of repetition and certainty, and they can do the same job for years on end. But if you have any shred of ambition, that’s probably not you.

This is where it’s really important to know what drives you and how being challenged rates in your rank list of criteria.

For me, this was generally number three, after how much impact I could have and who I was working for because those spoke clearly and directly to how much autonomy and difference I could make. But with those things being equal, being personally challenged and stretched to grow was critical for me. I have a boredom threshold of about two to three years in a row. I found that I could really master every aspect of a complex senior role in corporate within that sort of timeframe. After that, I needed difficult challenges to keep me interested, but for everyone, this is different.

Just know what your personality is and know if it’s going to be a problem for you that you might not be stretched as far as you should. Draw the links to whether a lack of personal growth results in a lack of career progress and what that means for you. Boredom isn’t the best reason to move, but lack of growth is. I found many roles to move to inside the companies I worked for because I was always looking for new ways to stretch myself and my bosses knew that, and they helped me.

Scenario #4. When you feel as though you’ve reached your use-by date

I’m a firm believer that over time, your effectiveness diminishes. It’s rare that a person can keep re-inventing the strategy and objectives to drive their teams forward in a fresh way. It’s also a fact that when seeking improvements through your particular leadership style, you’ll eventually reach the point of diminishing returns.

Beyond that, after a while your people will just stop listening to you, they understand where you’re coming from. They know what they can get away with and what they can’t. They’ve heard it over and over again. Familiarity breeds contempt. I’ve run into a few CEOs who believe that they’ve been able to serve the long-term interest of their company for decades. But in most cases, I think they’re seriously just believing their own bullshit.

There are outliers, of course, without a doubt. However, if you can truly put the company before yourself, you may reach an uncomfortable conclusion.

After five years at CS Energy, I thought it was a perfect time to leave. For a start, I had a burning desire to launch Your CEO Mentor with Em and, whereas I know that I could have continued to make a difference at CS Energy, at least in the short to medium term, I really think the company will benefit from the changing of the guard.

If you ever get this sense that you might be beyond your use-by date, you need to put your selfish considerations aside for the good of the organisation. Not many people are going to do this. As they say, in the race of life, you can always bid on self-interest to win by a short half head.

Scenario #5. When another opportunity presents itself

When you’re offered a new role, you need to evaluate it against your current one, or if you’ve decided for any of the above reasons that you need to leave your current role, you’ll have at least one or possibly more offers to evaluate. This is where you need to apply the full framework to understand what the right move is for you.

By looking through the lenses of your values, your strengths, your ultimate career objectives, your dispassionate risk assessment and your preferences for what you’re seeking in a role, you’re likely to come up with a good decision, even if you don’t nail it with your first bite of the cherry.


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