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To get—or keep—the career opportunities you want, you have to be a lot less rigid
Unfulfilled: Although 35-year-old scientist R. Erich Caulfield had contributed to significant research, particularly on the development of a noninvasive prototype device to treat tumors and cysts, life in the lab wasn’t making him happy.
New Position: Chief policy advisor to Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker and business administrator, a role in which Caulfield directs Newark’s response to the federal economic stimulus package by reviewing, implementing, and/or tracking projects totaling nearly $360 million.
His Challenge: With initial career aspirations of becoming a medical research engineer, Caulfield had obtained a B.S. in physics and mathematics from Morehouse College and a M.A., and Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science. But while doing advocacy work as the president of graduate student government at MIT, he’d realized that public policy was really what he wanted to do.
His Strategy: Right after graduation, he became a management consultant, at McKinsey & Co., providing strategic advice to senior leadership across several industries, including the private sector. Then, to make the leap to policymaker, he took a 40% pay cut.
The Result: As chief policy advisor, his projects include Newark’s Census outreach project, assisting Mayor Booker on First Lady Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity initiative, and helping develop the policy recommendations that Booker presented to the Obama administration on behalf of a coalition of nearly 30 New Jersey mayors. “For me it has always been about trying to help people in a way that is systematic and sustainable,” says Caulfield. “The compensation that you get from making a city a better place to live for its residents is way more valuable then any pay check.”
Caulfield represents a growing number of professionals who have embraced a more flexible approach to finding opportunities in the current environment. For some, it may mean relocating thousands of miles away to a job opportunity in another city or country. For others, like Caulfield, it may mean taking a sizable pay cut. Pursuing a career passion—or even finding a job or staying gainfully employed—will likely rely heavily on your flexibility quotient, your ability or willingness to adapt and change.
In this economy, flexibility is the operative word, says Dee Marshall, career and business coach for Raise The Bar L.L.C., a career and life coaching firm. “If you are too rigid, not able to bend, or not able to compromise, then you won’t succeed.” When it comes to making a major change for your career, such as switching industries, relocating, or accepting a new role, Marshall says consider the following:
Will I grow professionally and does it fulfill me? Being flexible in your career can be a two-sided coin, she says. You might be flexible for the wrong reasons. For example, it’s OK to take a demotion and extra responsibilities during the recession so that you can learn and grow in a position that has promise for your future. On the other hand if you’re staying at a job that is unfulfilling for title, recognition, and money, then you might be sacrificing more than you think.
How will it impact my family? If a career transition doesn’t benefit your family then it won’t benefit you either. Switching jobs might disrupt your children’s educational development, or conflict with your spouse’s career goals. Weigh the options and determine whom it will affect and whether the conflict will cause a short-term inconvenience or a long-term dilemma.
Can you have the best of both worlds? Ask yourself if the job and your life goals are mutually exclusive or if you can find a way to make them work together. For instance, if you are required by your company to switch cities, change departments, or take a demotion, try to identify ways to leverage the change. Your employer may be willing to offer more pay, better hours, or a favorable project in return for your cooperation.
—Marcia Wade Talbert