If you’re midway through your career and feeling stuck, you are not alone. Maybe work doesn’t feel meaningful anymore, or your industry has drastically evolved, or your values and interests have changed. No matter what, your40-something self is a very different person from the 20-something you were when you started out.The fact that this is such a common experience doesn’t make it any easier to handle when its happening to you.
Thi scrisis can be a profound one. You’ve invested a great deal of time, energy, money, and education in your career. You’ve established a solid network and credentials. You may have a certain lifestyle and the accompanying financial obligations to keep up with. Maybe your hoping to put kids through college and retire in the not-too-distant future. At the same time, you realize that if you don’t make a change now, you may never do it.
When you find yourself at this difficult juncture in your life and career, what do you do?
I reached out to Patty McCord, founder of Patty McCord Consulting and the former chief talent officer at Netflix for her advice. An edited version of our conversation follows:
HBR: You served as Chief Talent Officer of Netflix for 12 years. You must’ve come across a lot of people who were feeling stuck maybe even some who were having a full-blown crisis. What advice did you offer people who approached you about this situation?
PM: Actually, I often initiated these conversations myself. When I saw someone who seemed unhappy, Id confront them about it, and wed have a deeper discussion about what was going on. Id find out, for instance, that the person who was responsible for QA really wanted to be a novelist, and Id say, Whats stopping you? One employee wanted to take a six-month sabbatical to build sod houses, and I said: You actually want to quit, so just do that go live your life. Id sit down with people and help them plan their next steps, asking questions like: How risky is it for you financially? I got into trouble a few times with senior management for talking talented people into leaving. But my feeling was why should they stay and be unhappy?
If someone wanted to leave the company to try something new, and perhaps come back later, would you have been open to it?
Of course, but the job would have to still be open, and they would have to be the best candidate at the time. But lets face it, people who want to be gone six months or longer probably just want to quit, full stop.
Were there common threads among the people who wanted to make a major career change mid-stream?
Often it was because of some outside force the death of a parent, a child’s graduation, or a spouses layoff. A major life event usually causes people to stop and rethink their own lives.
What would you say to people who’ve advanced far in their career only to find that its not all they imagined it would be?
Pat yourself on the back for getting there, and then figure out where you want to go next. These are just phases in our lives. Its not linear. Rethink what you’ve always thought about employment. One of my missions is to convince people that just putting one foot in front of the other in the same career is over. There’s no such thing as job security, and there never will be again. In the future, employment is going to be more of a two-way street, where you can ask yourself what you really want from your life and career, and then talk to your employer to find a way to make it happen.
Most companies are arguably way behind you in that sort of thinking.
They are. But, companies should start telling the truth: there’s no such thing as guaranteed employment anymore. I think companies need to stop lying about that. People want more flexibility in how they think about work and their careers and companies need to get on board.
I could go on and on about how badly we run HR in this country. We have this whole culture built around the way we’ve always done it, and somehow we think its working. We could be having a much better, more productive, joyful career existence if companies and their employees just started talking honestly with each other.
In addition to advising people going through a mid-career shift, presumably you’ve had the opportunity to hire some. With your hiring manager hat on, what do you think of these applicants?
Its really important as a hiring manager to understand what success in any given role looks like. If you understand the factors beyond the skills, sometimes you’re open to different candidates. For example, if the position requires managing an enormous amount of money, or a great deal of judgment, then you should look at this persons whole life experience to see if he or she has demonstrated smart budget sense or developed good judgment over time. Often knowing that someone has a real passion for the work might make up for a lack of the required skills. Id almost always rather have someone with deep passion about the work than someone who has the right qualifications and doeskin love it.
People at this stage have maturity, experience, balance, wisdom and most importantly they don’t take work so seriously anymore. Work isn’t their whole life its just not so dramatic. For them, sometimes work is just work.
Yet these might be people who are looking for something that isn’t just work something that’s more fulfilling.
Maybe. It might be about seeking out more meaning, and it might be about just finding something more interesting. Ive personally found that people farther in their careers get more interested in problems of complexity and scale, because you have more capacity to solve bigger problems and its more interesting. Take a classic job category like accounting. For so many years, you’re learning how to do the books, and then you might become more interested in financial planning and analysis or how to apply your fundamental skills to a nonprofit that you’re passionate about. Ive seen people have their careers come alive again in a different environment or context.
They can be jaded. I work with a lot of start ups, and the upside of young people is that they don’t know any better, they often don’t know something cant be done. Innovation comes from naivety. A 20-year-old wont hear you cant.
That could account for why mid-career professionals in the tech sector have a particularly tough time. Tech companies seem to prefer younger talent who have that naivety, and perhaps fresher skills, who can often be hired for much lower salaries.
If you’re going to be in the tech field, you have to keep your skills fresh or be happy in a declining technology. Its just the way it works and always has. You have to think like an employer and if you think you bring something that a college kid doesn’t have, articulate that so the company knows what they’re getting from a more expensive candidate. We have to get over this notion that were owed something because of tenure, which to a company may or may not be valuable. Institutional knowledge is only valuable in an institution.
Whats your advice for people who want to network within their sector but are worried that word will get back to their current employer before there ready to take a leap?
Don’t be afraid. Just do it. There’s nothing ever wrong with sitting down and talking to someone about your career. You should be doing this all the time. Whats more, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have the same conversation with your boss. Why cant we be honest about this? Secrets don’t work in employment. I was always in trouble in the companies where I worked because I thought we should allow managers to head hunt within the company, and seriously, if a stranger can call us, why cant we call each other?
Whats your best advice for someone who needs to get out of a mid-career rut?
Start talking to people who are doing something you think you might like to do. Go interview. If you think the grass is greener somewhere else, go munch some grass on the other side of the fence. Finding work that you love is a fair amount of work. So, do the work.
I fundamentally believe that you own your career; companies don’t own it for you. You should be thinking about what you love to do what you want to do all the time. And you should feel comfortable talking openly about it. Its your life. source
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