Studying the career journeys of hundreds of folks — through interviews and workshops like the one from last December —  seemed to reaffirm the classic advice that “it is easier to get a job while you have a job.” Leaving a job after some kind of success not only provides an opportunity for advancement—it was necessary to set off a virtuous cycle of career momentum.* Of course, this is nothing new. We’ve all heard the adage, “the best time to get a job is when you already have a job” or perhaps simply, “don’t quit a job without having another job.”

After hundreds of interviews, research and customer understanding workshops — I started to unpack what it was that has always bothered me about this kind of advice. In short,

It’s “basic”

On the surface, it seems sensible. What bothers me if that is most applicable to the average, default worker of the past. In the U.S. this means folks who are of average intelligence, middle-class, white, straight, cis, men.

This advice is less helpful the further an applicant moves away from “default” on these dimensions. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways it is sound.  My aunt Gina** used to say, “the best time to shop for a new car is when you don’t need a new car.”  It’s Negotiations Strategy 101.  You get better results when you evaluate opportunities from a place of power. Having a job gives you leverage, flexibility, engagement, and authority. The effect is you appear more confident, competent and grounded to prospective employers.  However, as coaches, mentors and managers we need to understand that

Cookie cutter advice does not work for everyone

Such basic advice ignores the fact that an increasing percentage of the applicant population is no longer well-off, straight, white or male. I dislike this basic advice because it is completely lacking in empathy and the emotional understanding of factors impacting “non-default” applicants and seems especially heartless when folks hit a stumbling block out of their control, e.g. layoffs.  Furthermore, it is completely tone-deaf to the fact that a substantial portion of the population has or will experience some kind of bias in their career, either from employers, co-workers or customers.

The impact of bias can have an outsized emotional impact on one’s experience, that persists long after the direct negative impact on opportunities for growth and promotion. Bias can lead to persisting fears, and/or an aversion when it comes to changing jobs and organizations. As one recent graduate put it, “it’s kind of like choosing between the devil you know and the one you don’t.” Another applicant privately admitted to feeling “frozen” and “crying in frustration” even considering starting a job hunt.

Mentors can only do their best 

One father admitted he didn’t want to bring his daughters attention to gender bias, because he didn’t want them “to focus on it,” the equivalent of Garth Stein’s advice to look at racetrack and not the wall. Unfortunately, while this point of view is understandable, it doesn’t help applicants develop the resilience they need to face our current reality.

We need emotionally intelligent career strategies that help candidates proactively manage their careers and take risks. I’m not suggesting job seeker’s completely focus on factors beyond their control, but it is a mistake not to offer a compassionate understanding of potential limiting factors, including societal bias might impact their success.  To do that we must first have honest and candid discussions about:

  • Impact of Student Loan Debt. Most recent graduates cited the impact of debt on decision-making. Applicants with debt admitted to “settling” or accepting underemployment. This is consistent with behavioral economics theories on how debt impacts decision making and other current research.
  • Wage gap/Wage bias. Of course, underemployment is compounded by evidence of wage bias, making it harder for groups impacted by bias to unwind debt and accumulate wealth
  • Increased qualification hurdles.  Non-defaults often are required to have better and more credentials to “prove” their worth. (Example, a woman may need a master for the same job in which her male counterpart may only require a bachelor’s degree). Don’t take my word for it, a cursory study of current Linkedin profiles of similar levels reveal this – as does a cursory view of the credentials of authors.  This means women, minorities etc. tend to have even more debt while experiencing a slower rate of progress.
  • Creative Leadership.  The most frustrating irony of all is in the area of creativity and innovation.  The benefits of diversity and inclusion are well documented, and yet bias seems to prevent non-defaults from taking leadership positions in this space.

My (counterintuitive) take away

Applicants should be open to new career opportunities even when they are happy in their current position. This may seem counterintuitive because when one is happy the desire to focus on anything else is low. Additionally, this advice may not fit one’s “identity” as a loyal, hard worker – or a working-class ethos focused on “proving one’s worth.”  

The world of work has changed and increasingly we all must be stewards of our own careers.

Some quick ways to implement this advice

  • Set specific goals – if you don’t have a goal, “figure out what I really want” is a completely valid goal.
  • Mark your calendar for monthly assessments on how you are doing
  • Acquire mentors that are farther along toward reach your goal.
  • Finally, you can also benefit from mastermind type groups, reading books on career maintenance, following folks on Linkedin and/or hiring a coach to hold you accountable.


MATAGI Career Habit

After workshopping the book, Designing Your Life, MATAGI creatives began to meet to take care of career “house cleaning” i.e. updating resumes, portfolios, and cover letters. It is also a judgment-free space, to get feedback and coaching from leaders and guest experts – where folks can assess and, if needed, regain their energy and enthusiasm in the midst of career challenges.

* This fits with findings from a 2016 unpublished predictive analytics study of approximately ten thousand employees (using 2013 – 2015 client data). Our data scientists found an increased attrition rate for mid-level employees, occurring after a significant raise or promotion. Digging into this finding, we attributed it to the individual’s increased confidence in their market value — as well as cherry picking by recruiters. Read in the context of Google’s HR Analytics program, this indicated a need to identify and reward high impact performers.


** I’m naming her because 1. I think it’ll delight her and 2. It’s proof that, despite her remonstrations to the contrary, I did listen, at least once.