I have a friend who finds himself between jobs. He’s marvelously talented, has a solid track record, and is in the prime of his career.
He also has three months of severance, a couple of young kids who like to eat, and a mortgage.
In my work with senior leaders, I often run into people in this guy’s unfortunate circumstances. Whether caught in corporate re-shuffle or blind-sided by a blind spot, they’re good people who can and will contribute again in significant ways.
After listening to the details of their departure, I usually ask the same question. “How long do you have until you have to have another job?” With executives at this level, the length of severance is not usually the limiting factor. These are people, extraordinary circumstances aside, who have resources beyond a paycheck. Often, they haven’t even thought about the answer to this question.
That’s because they’ve heard the old lettuce analogy: the longer you’re on the shelf (i.e. out of a job), the worse you look. The people who advocate this thinking also advise getting a job as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you might look weak, damaged, and less valuable.
While this thinking has a kind of logic to it, I generally despise it. It feeds desperation in a time when most leaders feel the most vulnerable anyway – after being asked to leave the place where their title, status, and paycheck tells them they’re capable and important. And desperation leads to hasty decisions. All too often, hasty decisions lead us to look back with regret.
How much better to see these interruptions in the career path as gifts where we can re-think what our careers are all about, what talents we have to contribute, and where we can most productively employ those talents? That might take time and reflection that will leave us on “the lettuce shelf” a little longer.
But maybe we’re on the wrong shelf in the first place.