When should I contemplate a career/job change?

Aug. 1, 1999
In this month's Business Forum, Milton Chang adds a new element to the familiar question-and-answer format.
1304qa Chang New

In this month's Business Forum, Milton Chang adds a new element to the familiar question-and-answer format. He explains: "In addition to answering specific questions as before, I will sometimes group questions into generic topics so I can deal with a subject more thoroughly. This column was originally formatted to contain four to six questions, which made each answer necessarily short. And to avoid repeating myself when questions of a similar nature were asked, I responded to many questions in private, although I felt that was a loss to the rest of the readers. This new flexibility to group short questions into topics is intended to make this column useful to more readers. Please continue to write to me directly and challenge this business forum with new topics, issues, and questions. I have learned so much by thinking through the problems you have presented me, and I love the interaction!"

Many of the questions I receive relate to job changes. The questions are generally about when is the right time to change jobs. People are also worried when contemplating moving from a stable job to a start-up company, and their questions are related to the risks of a less-established business, how to go about finding such opportunities, and how they will fit in.

Career building

Fundamentally a job has to be a fair exchange between the individual and the company. The truth is that, unless you contribute more to the company than the equivalent of what you get paid, you won't have your job for very long. The flip side is that if the company does not treat you right, you can always leave. A classic happy situation is one in which the company provides job security and the resources you need to be productive in exchange for your output and loyalty. But we all know that a business can change very quickly and a company cannot be competitive in the marketplace by offering job security without demanding productivity. So the fair exchange is really for the individual to work hard on the job and to look at work as an opportunity to acquire skills that will bring job security in the form of being employable.

Based on this reasoning, the decision to make a job change should hinge mainly on the rate at which you are learning and developing your skills. An indication of the right timing can be boredom or a feeling of being unchallenged doing routine busywork. Everyone can have these negative feelings from time to time; the bigger picture is whether one has the opportunity to evolve and learn how other parts of the business work. If you truly feel boxed in, then it is imperative that you move on. A time of change is also time to develop a strategic plan for one's career. Picture how exciting each of your jobs can be if they are all in effect providing you with the skills and resources to get you where you ultimately want to be. Otherwise choosing what seems like a good job at the time can in reality distract you from reaching the ultimate goals that are important to you.

Moving on

Here are a few important points to remember to help you successfully transition from a big company to a small one. Keep in mind that a start-up company must successfully manage a series of projects from beginning to end, with minimal people and resources and without the support of an established infrastructure. You can prepare yourself for that situation by taking on projects at your company that are relatively self-contained in nature, managing them in an entrepreneurial mode, and understanding what's behind how and why things are done. You can also join a mature start-up company that is beginning to need the experience of managers from larger companies. With a track record of success and a determination to join a start-up company, you should find it easy to make it happen.

The final step requires managing the emotional aspects of making a change. We do not like to face uncertainty, but if we can quantify the worst-case scenario, then taking the plunge either in a job change or in starting a new company becomes easier. In reality the risks associated with job changes are small today and can be further mitigated by being thoughtful and by dealing with the people involved with sensitivity and consideration.

About the Author

Milton Chang

MILTON CHANG of Incubic Management was president of Newport and New Focus. He is currently director of mBio Diagnostics and Aurrion; a trustee of Caltech; a member of the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies; and serves on advisory boards and mentors entrepreneurs. Chang is a Fellow of IEEE, OSA, and LIA. Direct your business, management, and career questions to him at [email protected], and check out his book Toward Entrepreneurship at www.miltonchang.com.

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