Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Why decision-making linked to projects and roles requires us to flex as we grow

Let me start by saying that I am not for one second thinking about moving on from my job, I love it, even on the hard days. It’s not just jobs that we need to think about however, the same review process is true of positions (like committees) and also things like projects. Sometimes, when you are in all of these things, it can be hard to have the distance to reflect on whether carrying on is the right choice, not only for us but also for others. As I get older and slightly more established as a Consultant, I’ve been doing some thinking about which things to maintain and which it’s time to move on from to enable the development of others. I thought therefore that now is as good a time as any to talk about what that review process looks like.

Know what you are trying to achieve

I’m a default to yes kind of girl, unless I have a clear reason to decline I will always agree to give advice, help your project, join your committee, become a Governor etc. There are so many reasons why this is actually great. It opens doors to opportunities, experiences, and networks I just wouldn’t have otherwise. The problem with it is that in the moment you might not truly consider the purpose of the request, and whether it aligns with your values and aspirations.

Now, I’m not saying that everything has to have a why. What I am saying is that if you don’t take the time to think about the purpose and what added value you bring to the role, it can be difficult to judge further down the line whether those things have changed and whether you want to continue.

There are times when this is easier than others. If you are in a position where you are no longer being heard and you question what you are bringing to the table because it is not being considered, you have the choice to step away or rectify the situation, as others may be feeling the same.

Things like mission creep can be harder to manage. When you gradually find yourself taking on more and more, beyond the original terms of your commitment. The key word here is creep. It happens gradually, and you may take some time to realise it. If you don’t have regular points where you review your commitments, you may not even know that it’s happening. This is often a mark that you are valued, but it can also be a marker that others aren’t respecting your time and boundaries. If you don’t have clarity about what it is you wanted to achieve by saying yes, it can be hard to determine whether this enhanced role is still fulfilling your objectives, or whether you need to cut back or walk away.

Even if you are also a default to yes person, doing it with clarity of purpose enables you to review along the way. Also, know that if you say yes to everything, you will by default say no to other things, even if not actively. If you don’t know what your aspirations and objectives are, you can end up signing up to many things that actually draw your focus from the place you wanted to end up.

Know when something still serves you

If there is one thing in life that is inescapable, it is that we live in flux, everything changes, some things for the good, and some less so. Work based commitments are no different. Sometimes, scenarios change, or your end point changes and the current project/post/role no longer provides what you require. For instance, the terms of reference on a committee may change and no longer reflect the purpose for which you joined it, or you have started a research project but the findings suggest you should focus on a new area of research that does not really appeal. There is little to no point in getting upset about this. It happens, and sometimes you have to acknowledge that you can’t change the situation to serve you. At the point that you recognise this, you may need to make some decisions about your future or the future of a project, no matter what the prior investment may have been.

Awareness of both yourself and your situation is key when changes are happening or projects are evolving, so you can actively engage in decision-making linked to those changes, rather than getting swept up as a passenger in events. This has happened to me at numerous points in my career, and it is especially likely at transition points. The shift from trainee to qualified, qualified to senior, senior to consultant, but also at points where you are deciding what that individual career route looks like. Within projects, you can become so focussed on the original goal that some of the surrounding details pass you by. If you are not actively engaging with the hard conversations with yourself, you may find you end up in a career/project cul de sac that leaves you unhappy or requires you to make a horizontal move to get you back on the right track.

Once you are in the cul de sac it can be may be possible to change where you are at, but not always – a training post for example cannot always become a registered post as there are so many external factors involved. It is much better to avoid the cul de sac if you can, by being open and honest with yourself early on, but also working to be aware of those external factors to better understand where they are leading you and if you can influence them. Sadly, if you find yourself in one, there’s nothing to be done but to plan your exit strategy.

It is possible that if this happens and you haven’t seen it coming, the first response is to feel trapped and to experience all the emotions that come with that. Sometimes, those emotions can make it tempting to double down and try to force change rather than to step back and take a rationale look at both the external situation and why you feel the way you do. Both of these are required, however, for you to find your way out. Flogging a dead horse is not going to get it to win the race. Your only choice at that point is to find a new horse. Sometimes, work based choices can be the same, and it requires you to have the reflective insight to understand when to step away.

Know when you are still serving the purpose

I’m in my 40s and fortunate enough to be fairly well established in my career. I’m super happy with where I’m at, but in recent years I’ve had to sit myself down and have a serious talk with myself about whether I am still the right person to undertake some of the things that give me quite a lot of joy. I’m talking about some of the school outreach I do and even some of the committees I’ve been on for years. Just because I still enjoy something doesn’t mean that I am the best person to do it. In fact, if the project is good and matters to you, it is even more important to be aware of whether you are serving it or if it is now only serving you.

Some forms of outreach are a perfect example of this. I really enjoy going into schools and speaking to students. There are still occasions where I think I am the best person to do this, when showing can raise awareness of roles etc, but there are plenty of occasions when I would not be the right person any more. I am probably not the best person to go in and talk about university choices or to talk about A-levels. I’ve been out of the system for waaaaaaay too long. I am also, probably, not the best person to do a standard career visit. For one, I am now probably too old for the students to connect who I am with their life choices, for another I am showing a career after 20 years in the job and what they most want is someone whose recently graduated and moved into the role. Someone who resonates with them and shows where they could be in 5 years rather than 20. This was a really hard discussion to have with myself, but this kind of activity isn’t about me, it’s about the individuals whom I’m there to serve, therefore being open about the fact that what I bring to the table has changed is important. Knowing this and taking the opportunity to pay it forward to someone who can do it better can improve the experience of all those involved.

The other part of this self dialogue is about whether I am being selfish. I’ve reached a point in my career where I am privileged to be offered all kinds of opportunities rather than having to go looking for them. This is, let me be honest, amazing, and a real confidence boost. It does however mean that I have to have some conversations with myself questioning whether it is always appropriate for me to take them, or keep them, or whether the time has come to pay it forward and hand over some of those opportunities to others. One example of this is that I have now stepped down from a number of committees that I used to sit on. I really enjoyed sitting on them, personally I got a lot out of it. At the same point however, I would never have had the opportunity to gain the skills and build the networks I have, if someone hadn’t stepped aside in order for me to be able to join. These conversations generally involve me asking myself: Am I still learning? Am I still being challenged? If the answer is no, I’m just enjoying it, then I’m probably blocking a learning experience that could be beneficial to others and I should consider stepping aside for them to benefit.

I also have to be honest with myself that as I progress I gain new commitments, if I don’t let some of the previous commitments go I am actually not serving anyone well. I have to ask myself: Do I have the time/resources/interest in order to continue? Time is my most limited resource, and if I can’t give something the time it requires it is better that I let someone else take over who can.

So here are my two questions I regularly ask myself in order to help support decision making:

What is my motivation for being involved/continuing (guilt or obligation is not a reason to stay)?

Would passing on this opportunity to others benefit them and the objective, or would walking away cause actual harm?

If you can honestly ask these questions of yourself and reflect on the results it can really help guide your thinking of whether you should stay or go for any project or role/position.

All opinions in this blog are my own

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