OP-ED: Rather than look for a new job, it's time to recalibrate

I had lunch with a senior executive from one of the major global agencies about six weeks ago, who told me she "had to get out." She'd spent the last year laying people off, trimming forecasts, and reorganizing her team. Her reward for all that work: No bonus in two years, options that are underwater, and a 401(k) that has decreased in value. She was looking for a change.

I had lunch with a senior executive from one of the major global agencies about six weeks ago, who told me she "had to get out." She'd spent the last year laying people off, trimming forecasts, and reorganizing her team. Her reward for all that work: No bonus in two years, options that are underwater, and a 401(k) that has decreased in value. She was looking for a change.

What struck me the most about that lunch conversation is how similar it was to the discussions I've had with dozens of other colleagues and friends over the past six months. It has been a very difficult two years. The proliferation of job dissatisfaction is remarkable for the breadth of positions and the variety of industries and people that it pervades. Corporate communications execs, investor relations professionals, agency hot shots, graphic designers, suppliers, and yes, even journalists, are experiencing the same funk. So I listened to my friend with great patience. After exhausting her litany of complaints, she asked for my advice. "Keep your job," I told her, "you just need to recalibrate." Recalibrating means resetting the standards or measurements by which we hold ourselves accountable. We have to recalibrate our expectations about money, advancement, job security, and retirement. The nest egg that we conservatively estimated would return 8% annually has actually sagged 20% or more the past two years. The bonus that we cautiously guessed would be slightly lower than the previous year either came in 60% lower or didn't come in at all. The options that we projected would increase in value just 10% each year are now so far underwater that they may never have any value. Sales forecasts can't be met. Major projects have had their funding cut. Support staff has been laid off. Expansion plans have been shelved, and now we're focused on returning to acceptable levels of profitability - or worse yet, just surviving. For some, it's far worse. At Korn/Ferry, we've been inundated with resumes from great communications executives who carefully built their careers in blue-chip agencies and corporations, only to take a wrong turn with a high-flying dot-com. They are now looking for work, and the demand is weak. So it's time to recalibrate. Because, surprisingly, things aren't all bad. Recalibrating is a three-step process. The first and hardest step is acceptance. We have to accept that the seductive dream of early retirement and substantial wealth that came with the dot-com bubble was, in fact, absurd. Acceptance means we have to stop constantly calculating the long-term value of our 401(k), and we have to stop checking stock quotes five times a day to see how the markets are doing. Because when it does get better (and it will), the improvement will be gradual. Perhaps the toughest reality we must accept is that the income we generated and the success we had in 1999 and 2000 had less to do with our brilliance, and more to do with an aberrant blip in our economic cycle. The second step in recalibrating is self-assessment. It's time to assess our values. What is it that we're thankful for, what truly matters in life, and where do we find our most satisfying moments? For most people, the answers to these questions lie in the relationships they have with colleagues, clients, friends, and family. And, for most people, those relationships are still intact. It's also time for career assessment - taking stock in what you have accomplished, and the personal and professional equity that you've built with your current employer. The final step is full recalibration. What it really means is getting comfortable with the knowledge that the end game is still many years away (like it always was!), and life is about the process, not the rewards. And remember, you are not alone. Your colleagues and peers are struggling with the same issues. I had a friend who was among the lucky few to hit the jackpot during the dot-com years. He was able to cash out options worth $5 million, and felt that his life had changed forever. About a year later we met for breakfast, and he told me something I'll never forget. "I thought that when I became a millionaire something magical would happen," he said. "I thought that somehow people would treat me differently, that I'd be happier, that some great change would occur. But none of that happened. I can afford to buy more things now, and I don't worry about paying the mortgage or college for my kids, but otherwise, it's still about getting up every day and trying to find meaning in how I spend my time and who I spend it with." Even he had to recalibrate - though I wish we all had his set of challenges.
  • Don Spetner is an executive recruiter with Korn/Ferry International.

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