When is the Right Time to Risk a Career Change?

A global pandemic and an uncertain economy may seem like a strange time to consider a job change, but for some people it is, apparently, the perfect moment.

By Julie Norwell

According to a recent report, two-thirds of the North American workforce is looking for new job opportunities or would be open to considering a new opportunity. And why not? For those willing to take a risk, crisis is the wellspring of opportunity.

It is painfully evident that the Covid crisis has been a sort of crucible for the business world. It has imposed incredible stressors on companies, revealing their core strengths and weaknesses. While some have adapted and thrived, others will take years to recover.

The HR aspect of the crisis has been unprecedented. Even companies indirectly affected by the crisis are struggling to keep employees engaged and feeling appreciated. One consulting firm reports that 57% of companies anticipate “major” changes to their culture as a result of the pandemic.

As with companies, this is a transitional moment for workers. Millions have lost jobs. Others have jobs but face a high burnout rate. For many, the uncertainty of the situation has brought into sharp focus personal or professional dissatisfactions that, hitherto, were swept under the rug. No wonder, then, that so many are now open to a change.

Naturally, there are always risks in making career changes, but if you risk little, you gain little. The trick is in determining when the upside outweighs the downside.

Why take the risk?

If you are thinking about a career change, the first thing you should do before anything else is to understand what you want from it. Do you want a change because you’re unhappy? You don’t make enough money? You’re not progressing? Do you want a routine? You hate routine? You feel unappreciated? You’re bored? Are you stressed? Your values don’t align with those of the company?

Professional restlessness is often just part of the progression of a normal career cycle. But sometimes, there is a specific catalyst, like a corporate merger, a pass-over for a promotion, a major family eventor a pandemic-induced economic slowdown.

If you are unemployed, your first priority is probably to find a job. But don’t overlook that unemployment is an ideal opportunity to consider a big transition that may not have made sense before.

Whatever the reason, if career change is on your mind, be clear and honest with yourself about your dissatisfaction and what you hope to achieve with a change.

Then do your research.

The risk-reward conundrum

No one measures career risks in the same way because so much depends on your individual risk appetite. How much risk are you willing to accept for a potential reward? The answer hinges on your personal situation – your age, where you are in your career, and your financial situation. So, this exercise begins with researching all aspects of the risks you face, then being honest with yourself.

Gather as much data as possible. Research prospective industries, companies, and roles.

Talk to people who can offer insightful perspective, and be sure to factor in all risks, both measurable and immeasurable, such as:

  • What is the compensation structure?
  • How do base pay and bonus compare with your previous compensation?
  • Will you be changing health plans?
  • What will the commute be like?
  • Will you be comfortable with the culture of the new work environment?

If a career change involves a relocation, you have more homework. A position in New York City at a higher salary might sound good until you factor in the high cost of living. Be sure to weigh the potential for career advancement against the cost of moving, the new cost of living, not to mention the loss of your local social support network.

If you have dependents and family commitments your calculations will be even more complicated. For example, the prospect of a low salary but unlimited sales commission potential might be unpalatable if you’re the breadwinner. In this case, it may be better to limit your upside in order to limit the downside.

When it comes to weighing risks, there is no right answer. So, be introspective. Make sure to ask the right questions of others and yourself to ensure you know your comfort level with the risks of any career change before you make it.

How to mitigate risks

Taking risks is scary. Still, with good management, risk-taking can be a game changer. Arianna Huffington, for example, famously left her career as a successful journalist and built the first opinion-based online news outlet of its kind, the Huffington Post, by rejecting numerous critics and working hard to gain investor and public support.

A good risk model is predicated on severity and likelihood. It begs the questions: What is the credible worst-case scenario and how likely is to happen? Once those answers are clear, steps can be taken to mitigate the severity and likelihood.

Consider Mara, who relocated from Boston to Florida for a job to be near family before she was 100% sure that it was the right move for her. She hedged her bets by maintaining her house in Boston and living with her parents until she felt convinced that she was ready to move her household.

Another example is Bruce, who hated his six-figure job and wanted to quit to try to make a living as the drummer of his buddy’s rock band. Being a successful rock musician was his dream come true. Realistically, however, the chances were slim they’d make it big and, if the band flopped, he could end up penniless. To mitigate this risk, Bruce created a backstop – he saved up enough for a year’s worth of living expenses and gave himself exactly that long to make it. If he was unsuccessful, he determined to hang up his drumsticks and find a new desk job.

Not everyone has the option to go backwards in his or her career.

But there are things you can do to increase the likelihood of a successful career change. According to Herminia Ibarra, author of “Reinventing Your Career in the Time of Coronavirus” (Harvard Business Review), and Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, major career changes are likelier to succeed if you test them out first. How? By volunteering, consulting, or doing short-term contract work in fields and roles that interest you. Also, it makes great sense to explore more than one career path before making a big transition to make sure you have chosen well.

Career changes aren’t always the right decision, but don’t forget that sticking with the status quo is not without risk. So, when is the right the right time to risk a career change? Well, there is no time like the present. Just think before you take that leap of faith.

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