On Deliberate Reinvention
At least three people I know well have recently decided to resign from their jobs. With no new job to go to.
These are not people at the beginning of their career who are going backpacking overseas. They’re not people at the end of their career, dialling their work hours right down. And they’re definitely not people who have won the lottery and decided to chuck it all in.
No, these are senior, experienced leaders in their mid-40’s who are great at, and love, what they do. They’re in the time of their life that conventional wisdom would say is the time to ‘put the pedal down’, go full-out and make their mark (and pay off the mortgage). Conventional wisdom would say this is the time to play it safe and not put things at risk.
Yet they’re resigning anyway.
What’s going on?
The Great Reflection
Gartner Research coined a term that I think is more apt than The Great Resignation. They looked behind the symptoms to discern what’s really happening, and coined the term ‘The Great Reflection.’ Their research into 3500 people around the world suggests that the pandemic has caused people to stop, reflect and reconsider where work fits into their lives. 65% of people they surveyed said that the pandemic has made them rethink the place that work should have in their life, and 62% said that it has ‘made me long for a bigger change in my life’.
This is a liminal period of transition. The Great Reflection is leading people to realise that they want, and have, choice. It’s causing them to seriously consider their options. And, for many, after two years of percolating, it’s time to act on them.
Stepping Into Thin Air?
What’s even more interesting is that my friends are leaving with no new paid employment ahead of them. In talking with each of them, it’s apparent that they’re committed to carving out time and space to create what’s next, rather than to jump to what’s on offer.
As one of them told me, “Maybe it’s more dangerous to stay, risk languishing and wonder what might have been.”
The actions of a privileged few? Yes, perhaps. But this isn’t a knee-jerk reaction which they can afford to act on because they’re loaded. They’ve each been very deliberate about planning their next chapter months in advance, and have been saving to fund it.
In the book The 100 Year Life, by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, the authors suggest that as our life expectancies get longer, we need to move beyond the old model of ‘learn, earn, retire’ as a description of our career arcs. With more time to experience what our lifetime has to offer (around 4000 weeks, according to Oliver Burkeman) and an ever-evolving work landscape, Gratton and Scott say that we all need to develop the ability to deliberately initiate and navigate periods of transition throughout our lives so we can continually reinvent ourselves.
That’s what I see these three people doing.
Is it scary? Hell yes! As one of them said to me ‘It’s not easy to decide to do it. Or announce it. Cultural norms might suggest that I’m mad. But it’s better than playing it safe.’
It’s people acting on the realisation that they have choice, and realising that they have the agency to enact that choice.
Roll With It
Smart organisations recognise that their people want this choice and are acting to facilitate it rather than prevent it. There are a range of options on offer. One client I know offers career coaching to every employee. Another is dialling up the dynamism of their internal labour market, enabling staff to see and explore the choices available to them. And another treats former employees as part of their ecosystem - kind of like the line in Hotel California: you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. All in recognition of the fact a) it’s a long game, and b) that people are choice-making creatures. Water will find its way.
As a manager, this can be a terrifying prospect. Yet the best managers I know have always been proactive about helping their people position themselves for the next role. Their aim is to be a talent factory, not a gulag. A place where people join, do great work, and leave better than when they started.
I suspect this is a trend that won’t go away, even when the supply and demand of labour markets eventually tips the other way. People want to live purposeful lives. In a fast-paced, ever-changing world, taking time out to consider what’s next is smart.
Let’s finish with an excerpt from one of my friend’s leaving speech:
“I can genuinely say my time here has been the best job I’ve ever had, and has meant more to me than any other.
And I always promised myself to go when it was still great, when I felt I cared as much as when I started and before I got stale.
I still love this place to bits and what it means and can mean as a group of people working to serve other people.
This is the right time to go. The future is looking so exciting for this organisation and I’m proud as heck for all that.
And I don’t know what I’m going to do next work wise. What I know is I’m going to spend some time back home, and then take a real long walk and think about things :)
And after that I’m sure what’s right for me will be right there in front of me.”
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