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If you’re midway through your career and feeling stuck, you are not alone. Maybe work doesn’t feel meaningful anymore, or your industry has drastically evolved, or your values and interests have changed. No matter what, your 40-something self is a very different person from the 20-something you were when you started out. The fact that this is such a common experience doesn’t make it any easier to handle when it’s happening to you.
This crisis can be a profound one. You’ve invested a great deal of time, energy, money, and education in your career. You’ve established a solid network and credentials. You may have a certain lifestyle — and the accompanying financial obligations — to keep up with. Maybe you’re hoping to put kids through college and retire in the not-too-distant future. At the same time, you realize that if you don’t make a change now, you may never do it.
When you find yourself at this difficult juncture in your life and career, what do you do?
HBR: You served as Chief Talent Officer of Netflix for 12 years. You must’ve come across a lot of people who were feeling stuck — maybe even some who were having a full-blown crisis. What advice did you offer people who approached you about this situation?
PM: Actually, I often initiated these conversations myself. When I saw someone who seemed unhappy, I’d confront them about it, and we’d have a deeper discussion about what was going on. I’d find out, for instance, that the person who was responsible for QA really wanted to be a novelist, and I’d say, “What’s stopping you?” One employee wanted to take a six-month sabbatical to build sod houses, and I said: “You actually want to quit, so just do that — go live your life.” I’d sit down with people and help them plan their next steps, asking questions like: “How risky is it for you financially?” I got into trouble a few times with senior management for talking talented people into leaving. But my feeling was why should they stay and be unhappy?
If someone wanted to leave the company to try something new, and perhaps come back later, would you have been open to it?
Of course, but the job would have to still be open, and they would have to be the best candidate at the time. But let’s face it, people who want to be gone six months or longer probably just want to quit, full stop.
Were there common threads among the people who wanted to make a major career change mid-stream?
Often it was because of some outside force — the death of a parent, a child’s graduation, or a spouse’s layoff. A major life event usually causes people to stop and rethink their own lives.
What would you say to people who’ve advanced far in their career only to find that it’s not all they imagined it would be?
Pat yourself on the back for getting there, and then figure out where you want to go next. These are just phases in our lives. It’s not linear. Rethink what you’ve always thought about employment. One of my missions is to convince people that just putting one foot in front of the other in the same career is over. There’s no such thing as job security, and there never will be again. In the future, employment is going to be more of a two-way street, where you can ask yourself what you really want from your life and career, and then talk to your employer to find a way to make it happen.
Most companies are arguably way behind you in that sort of thinking.
They are. But, companies should start telling the truth: there’s no such thing as guaranteed employment anymore. I think companies need to stop lying about that. People want more flexibility in how they think about work and their careers and companies need to get on board.
I could go on and on about how badly we run HR in this country. We have this whole culture built around the way we’ve always done it, and somehow we think it’s working. We could be having a much better, more productive, joyful career existence if companies and their employees just started talking honestly with each other.
In addition to advising people going through a mid-career shift, presumably you’ve had the opportunity to hire some. With your hiring manager hat on, what do you think of these applicants?
It’s really important as a hiring manager to understand what success in any given role looks like. If you understand the factors beyond the skills, sometimes you’re open to different candidates. For example, if the position requires managing an enormous amount of money, or a great deal of judgment, then you should look at this person’s whole life experience to see if he or she has demonstrated smart budget sense or developed good judgment over time. Often knowing that someone has a real passion for the work might make up for a lack of the required skills. I’d almost always rather have someone with deep passion about the work than someone who has the right qualifications and doesn’t love it.
People at this stage have maturity, experience, balance, wisdom — and most importantly — they don’t take work so seriously anymore. Work isn’t their whole life — it’s just not so dramatic. For them, sometimes work is just work.
Yet these might be people who are looking for something that isn’t just work — something that’s more fulfilling.
Maybe. It might be about seeking out more meaning, and it might be about just finding something more interesting. I’ve personally found that people farther in their careers get more interested in problems of complexity and scale, because you have more capacity to solve bigger problems and it’s more interesting. Take a classic job category like accounting. For so many years, you’re learning how to do the books, and then you might become more interested in financial planning and analysis or how to apply your fundamental skills to a nonprofit that you’re passionate about. I’ve seen people have their careers come alive again in a different environment or context.
Are there downsides of hiring a mid-career professional?
They can be jaded. I work with a lot of startups, and the upside of young people is that they don’t know any better, they often don’t know something can’t be done. Innovation comes from naivety. A 20-year-old won’t hear “you can’t”.
That could account for why mid-career professionals in the tech sector have a particularly tough time. Tech companies seem to prefer younger talent who have that naivety, and perhaps fresher skills, who can often be hired for much lower salaries.
If you’re going to be in the tech field, you have to keep your skills fresh or be happy in a declining technology. It’s just the way it works and always has. You have to think like an employer and if you think you bring something that a college kid doesn’t have, articulate that so the company knows what they’re getting from a more expensive candidate. We have to get over this notion that we’re owed something because of tenure, which to a company may or may not be valuable. Institutional knowledge is only valuable in an institution.
What’s your advice for people who want to network within their sector but are worried that word will get back to their current employer before they’re ready to take a leap?
Don’t be afraid. Just do it. There’s nothing ever wrong with sitting down and talking to someone about your career. You should be doing this all the time. What’s more, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have the same conversation with your boss. Why can’t we be honest about this? Secrets don’t work in employment. I was always in trouble in the companies where I worked because I thought we should allow managers to head hunt within the company, and seriously, if a stranger can call us, why can’t we call each other?
What’s your best advice for someone who needs to get out of a mid-career rut?
Start talking to people who are doing something you think you might like to do. Go interview. If you think the grass is greener somewhere else, go munch some grass on the other side of the fence. Finding work that you love is a fair amount of work. So, do the work.
I fundamentally believe that you own your career; companies don’t own it for you. You should be thinking about what you love to do — what you want to do — all the time. And you should feel comfortable talking openly about it. It’s your life.