“Ray, I hate my job,” Scott lamented as we met together. “It is everything I have in me to get up and go to work on Monday mornings” he confided. It is not that unusual to have a client confide that they wish they had not taken the job they now feel stuck in. The impact of the 2008 Great Recession made many people gun-shy about looking for work and even as the economy recovers many are reluctant to consider something new.
As I listen to clients a common theme emerges. Being stuck in a job is not a function of the economy, it is a matter of perception. Finding something new IS impossible if one is not looking. Dislodge your perception. Why is this a matter of perception and not circumstance? In a word, agency. We all have the capacity to act in any given environment. It is the concept of agency that summons us to be responsible and accountable for how we act. People deny agency when they deny responsibility for their decisions and behaviors. In 2,000 I found myself in a transition away from leading a congregation. I say transition, but it felt more like a cataclysmic convulsion. I found myself outside a career path that was rapidly changing with only an MA in Intercultural Studies. An MA in intercultural studies prepared me to lead a mission organization or congregation (that is what I was doing when I went to school). But the organization changed, leadership changed, a vision for what was needed changed and I was unceremoniously dislocated. In walking through this tumultuous experience, I learned several things about agency and change.
Obsolescence in skill is a fact of life. Consider the rate of technological changes and it is clear that skills require routine updates. But I faced a deeper issue; the same issue faced by my clients. I misinterpreted an obsolescence in skill with a personal obsolescence. In other words, I believed I could not do anything else. This is the rub, your belief about yourself will limit where you can go.
I sat with a friend at breakfast one morning and talked about my next steps. In our conversation, I reframed how to use my knowledge base. As it turns out my skills in management, knowledge retention, team development, budgeting, organizational design, human resource management, systems development/analysis, and persuasion weren’t so obsolete, they just needed to be framed in a new context. I left breakfast with a job offer, Director of Operations for a hospitality software company in the midst of a turnaround. This is not to say I didn’t have a steep learning curve. I immersed myself in learning the software, the basics of crystal reporting, data analysis/decision-making, and sales while I also restructured our operation to turn around a hemorrhage of customers and cash.
Learning is not limited to what I did in school. Learning is a life skill that requires an ability to embrace unsettling ambiguity and strong feelings of incompetence in the process of applying new perspectives and knowledge. Employees with experience are only as valuable as they are capable of (1) continually learning and (2) integrating experience with new skill and knowledge. I have noticed that people who share my particular demographic position split into two basic groups: those invigorated by learning and those who vainly pursue the entitlement of past learning and accomplishment, “I’ve paid my dues,” they repeat with irritated intensity. Refusing to learn is like refusing to breath – just because you did it once does not mean you can stop and simultaneously enjoy the same quality of life. Learning is not just a reality of maintaining the ability to survive in the job market, it is a necessity to maintain quality of life. Some research indicates that education programs offer a simple, low-cost way of helping people to reduce symptoms of mild to moderate depression and anxiety (two obvious characteristics in those I meet who feel stuck). Learning can boost self-confidence and self-esteem, help build a sense of purpose, and help people connect with others.
Courage to change required an ability to see my situation plainly and to decide to act. The unvarnished reality in which we live is that the labor market is a buyers market. In a buyer’s market, the first two things that employers care about are (1) bottom-line-contributing, transferable skills, and (2) the promise of delivering profitable results. It’s up to you do distinguish between companies that show this is all they care about and companies that include a wider scope of concerns built on the capacity to stay profitable in a highly competitive environment. When the events of 911 drove the software company into bankruptcy, I found myself unemployed again. I had a couple of contract assignments, one in China training managers and one in Atlanta writing training curriculum. But, I needed full-time employment. A friend (notice the theme of friendships) called to ask me to consider going to work in the company he worked. He was a VP and noted that they needed someone with my unique skills to help them change the culture of their organization. We had met at church where I served on the board then as chairman of the board and had introduced some significant change in how the board accomplished their fiduciary and governance responsibilities.
My friend set up an interview offsite with VP of operations named Gary. We all sat at a table and ordered breakfast. Gary picked up my resume, threw across the room and said obnoxiously, “I don’t know why I’m here. This resume says nothing but pastor. What do you have to offer our firm.”
“Well,” I thought, “this interview is off to a great start.” I had done some research on the industry of this company and so I took a deep breath and began.
“Let’s see, Gary. I take it you don’t have many employees in your company.” The statement was a setup and a chance for Gary to frame the need for my skills.
“We have 150 employees, you should come ready to an interview – if you were, you’d know this” he sneered.
“And you have 15 managers of various rank, You have 80%+ turnover annually. The cost of your turnover assuming training costs, lost productivity, lost knowledge, and recruiting costs are conservatively about $4,500 per employee and in excess of $540,000 per year in lost revenue. I managed a team of 150 volunteers for three years with zero turnover – I may have something to teach you about managing people and their motivation,” I said. Gary just squinted.
“Your budget is what?” I queried.
“We have a budget of $7M annually,” Gary’s chest seemed to puff out as he spoke.
“So, you are running payroll at over 64% of your total budget including turnover and you can’t get better results?” I may have something to give in terms of cost savings and efficiencies,” I narrowed my gaze and looked him in the eye.
I continued, “Your next set of challenges include helping the owner step into a different role and get out-of-the-way of the company’s growth, but I’m pretty sure you don’t know how to help him understand why it’s important or how to carry it out or what it will mean to greater profitability. I can help you with that.” I sat back in my chair and let everything simmer. “The question,” I began again, “is not why are you here, but why am I here? I can help you improve your company, but I’m not sure you are ready to make the commitment and changes needed to carry this out.” I knew this sounded bold, but Gary frankly ticked me off.
Gary’s eyes began to twinkle, a grin started etching its way across his face and he said, “We need to schedule a follow-up to this interview.” We spent the rest of breakfast talking about his vision for the company and the opportunity and risk they had in front of them. They hired me. I had to learn new software, a new industry, and new ways to apply my knowledge. I had to prove how my skills were transferable. I had to learn about the industry before I met with Gary. I had to exercise courage, the kind of courage that was willing to step up and swing at the opportunity. I had to exercise humility, the kind of humility that recognized I could make a difference if I was willing to learn.
Opportunity often comes in clothing that scares the snot out of me. Everything I have done since that transition in 2000 has been new. I have not succeeded at everything. I bombed one of the most important sales presentations I have ever had when I could not speak knowledgeably about how to calculate the ROI of training to a corporate CFO. I couldn’t speak his language and completely missed who the power players were in the room. But, as much as I wanted to run to the hills with my tail between my legs, I decided instead to take my lumps and learn. I can calculate ROI on training and coaching now.
“Ray,” the voice on the other end of the phone was a friend of mine. “How would you like to teach a research methods course?”
My graduate education had focused on qualitative research methods. I’m comfortable with qualitative research and routinely conduct social research projects for clients. However, I knew this offer included having to learn and teach quantitative research as well. My friend described the course, an undergraduate course worth 2 units. My heart seemed to have beat up into my chest as I blurted out, “I’d love to teach that course, and I am looking for a mentor in quantitative research.”
“Great,” came the reply. “I will recommend you and I am willing to mentor you.”
The idea of learning didn’t scare me, it’s the performance standards I have that get in my way. I want to teach the course like I’ve done it for years. Knowing this about myself is an important part of overcoming fear. I will be fine and I will teach the course like it’s the first time out of the shoot. Know what scares you, then look it in the eye and decide to move forward anyway.
Many of my mentors are now younger than I. This is the weirdest part for me. Young professionals surround me who are much more knowledgeable than I about technology and certain analytical methods. Yet, we find a mutually symbiotic relationship – they cherish my life experience and I enjoy their enthusiasm to teach me new tricks of the trade. I don’t feel the need to project independent power – to stay aloof from these up and coming professionals. I don’t get all of their social references, that is part of the challenge of being in different generations. However, I do get their drive and their hunger for success, contribution, meaning, and purpose.
Life changes. Time is like a steamroller that buries you or a wave to ride until the last wipeout. Choose to see change as a welcome friend who prods you into life, to new adventures, new relationships, and a new sense of contribution. If you are in a transition – consider these things. Find resources to help you through the tumult of change. For example, if your job skills need updating, the Department of Labor funds job training programs to improve the employment prospects of adults, youth, and dislocated workers. Look into this. If your perception about your life purpose needs updating find a coach who can walk you through a change of perspective. You have a contribution to others that is valuable and you have options if you look for them. On the other hand, you could choose to move from skill obsolescence to personal obsolescence – but doing so is a lonely horrible way to die a slow death.