[Career Tips] 3 Ways to Better Yourself at the Job Waiting Game

As my 7 year-old son Traylor periodically reminds me, it’s tough to wait.

This morning’s challenge was one under-ripe mango: serving it for breakfast when he was ready but it wasn’t still meant it didn’t taste so hot.

It can be just as tough to wait in the employment constellation we call jobs and careers. Sometimes you’re ready, but the job is not – and sometimes you’re not ready, but the job is.

So why is this important?

People optimize their chance of being successful in a job based on four or five factors: skills, culture fit, supervisor(s), business dynamics, and personal situation: timing affects all of them. Learning how to optimize timing means learning when to move ahead, and when to pause and wait. Like a good baseball (or cricket as the case may be) player waiting for the best pitch to hit, people who do better in the career game learn when to wait, and when to jump. As the great baseball slugger Ted Williams demonstrated, while some pitches may be in the strike zone (just like available jobs), they’re not they ones to hit at since you’ll like hit into an out.

And by the way, this is not about finding the perfect job: it’s about finding a role that fits most of those success factors. Call it the 80% role. If you wait for the 100% job, like waiting for the perfect mate or house, be prepared for a long, long wait.

For many, the sense is that the more senior you become, the fewer chances that come your way. Partly that’s a function of numbers in the slope of business hiearchies: usually fewer folks at the top  then in the middle or at entry level.  I think it’s possible for an Accounts Payable specialist to bounce around a little from one AP role to another but absent something goofy (think embezzlement or gross incompetence)  you’ll probably will get another shot at available AP roles.

But bounce around once or twice as a Chief Financial Officer, and in most cases – absent employer desperation – CFO opportunities will be few and far between. And with a running clock – more people are closer to 40 than 24 for average senior roles – the temptation is to plunge in rather that pause for the right role.

An earlier post about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s approach – which I think is a pretty effective one – is for employers to ask rather than assume regarding someone’s interest and abilities to take on another challenge or another role.

The flip side of that equation is the responsibility for employees to let their employers know when they need to take a pause: to stick where and doing what they are, rather than charge up the proverbial next hill. For people of ambition and proverbial fire in their bellies that pause can be a tough one.

It is at best an imperfect world, (and likely a good thing that it is – boredom might await us all otherwise). The trick as it were is finding a balance between your skills and abilities and the challenges and opportunities of the roles that present themselves. In a perfect world you’d step into roles that challenge you and for for which you’re qualified.

But things like deferring to a spouse/partner’s career, elder care or small kids, or getting that book or dissertation you’ve been working on out that door may mean that your best option for future success is to wait until you’re more fully ready.

BusinessWeek noted in a piece called The Corner Office or the Highway that more executives were quitting their current roles – no job in hand – to pursue more senior roles. It’s a great tactic for those with the financial means – and lower anxiety levels – but it’s not a tactic for everyone. While the stigma about hiring someone out of a job has mostly faded, many of us are still wedded to the illusionary comfort that a job at hand is superior to a better one in the bush.

So if you’re one of those who is who finds themselves treading water while waiting for the right role, what can you do?

  • Make sure you’re doing a satisfactory job in your current role while you wait for your next one. My experience is that you’re much smarter about taking on a new role when you don’t have to, as opposed to struggles in your current role which may have you primed to jump to a wrong role.
  • Figure out the things you could do now to prepare you for that next role? Technical classes, public speaking courses, professional development work, or volunteer experience (board work for example, or mentoring someone) which simulates part of the “next” job are all things that help you continue to develop while you’re waiting.
  • Work on your network: I don’t know anyone (me included) who can’t do something in the area of maintaining and sustaining your personal career network. The “let’s talk shop” over breakfast, coffee or lunch conversations can keep you sharper and more engaged while you wait for better timing.

Do those three things and you’ll likely be in better shape when the next “best” opportunity appears. At worst, you’ll have something engaging to do while you pass the time. At best you’ll be a candidate who has demonstrated initiative, performance, and career savvy.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.