After more than two decades in the Executive Search
business, I have learned a lot about what goes into a
successful hire. I try to impart my knowledge to both hiring
managers and candidates. Nevertheless, at many job
interviews I find myself listening to questions that make me
cringe and answers that make me want to cry.
Now it's my turn to talk.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

When taking a step backward isn't a bad thing

First, let me be perfectly honest.  I almost never advise any professional to take a backward step during the course of his career.  If I may use a football analogy, advancing toward one’s career goal line is hard enough these days without imposing a 15-yard penalty on yourself at any time in the game.

Certainly, from a recruitment standpoint, I would neither encourage nor expect any candidate to accept a lesser position than what he or she has in terms of salary, job content, title, or any other standard measure of progress.  And truthfully, most of my clients would be less than completely receptive to an individual who is considering leaving a higher position for an apparent demotion.  A big “Why?” would become a large, gray, perhaps immovable elephant in the room.

However, as usual, there are exceptions to any rule.  So when is taking a backward step in your career okay or even a good thing?

Answer:  It is okay to step backward….

1.     …when you are standing on a cliff.

Occasionally an individual who has been an outstanding performer in previous roles gets rewarded with a promotion to a role in which she cannot perform at the same level of excellence.  For instance, a person with superior technical ability is promoted to a managerial role although she has no aptitude for nor interest in assigning and delegating work and disciplining subordinates.  If you have been promoted to a position at which you believe you cannot succeed, it is a good move to find a way, within or outside of your current company, to return to a role at which you can excel.

2.     …when you are heading in the wrong direction.

Have you somehow ended up in an accounting/finance role when what you enjoyed most in your career was your entry level position in the marketing department?  If, after serious consideration of all relevant factors, you have decided that you are on the wrong career path, it may be necessary to take a step backward in order to start moving forward in the right direction. This will require less financial sacrifice if done earlier in your career rather than later.

3.     …when a step backward really isn’t.

It is sometimes rational to accept what might initially appear to be a demotion, but really isn’t.  Perhaps you have been offered a position that is one level beneath your current title, but offers you valuable exposure to areas which are necessary to your long-term advancement.  Keep in mind that an identical title may have very different responsibilities from one company to another, particularly when company size is dissimilar.  In certain cases, a lesser title may actually give you more responsibility.

4.     …when you lack a paycheck.

When you are unemployed, only you can determine how long to hold out for a position that is bigger or better than your previous position.  This will depend on your level of self-confidence, your financial needs, and your view of the job market.   In today’s job market, many professionals have come to realize that a step backward is the only step available.

A step backward does not signify the end of your career. So if you find yourself banging your career into a brick wall for a period of time and getting no further ahead, consider stepping back a few feet and perhaps you will see the open door a few feet to your right. 

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