No matter how much you love and are succeeding in your current job, you should always have at least an inkling of a career backup plan. If you’ve been in the business world long enough, you already know that unforeseen events beyond your control can have a negative impact on your professional trajectory or even necessitate your having to make a job change. As examples, your company announces layoffs, gets acquired, or is forced to wind down operations. Your boss or a key sponsor with whom you have a great relationship moves to another part of the company or leaves for another firm. Alternatively, you aren’t happy, aren’t finding success, or aren’t feeling a sufficient sense of purpose in what you’re doing. You get injured or develop a serious illness. Or your spouse or partner is offered a great job in another city, and you agree to move without having a new job lined up for yourself.
Building a Career Backup Plan
For these reasons, and many others, you should have a Plan B and ideally a Plan C. People talk about having “f*** you” money. That sounds great in practice, but let’s face it: the vast majority of us don’t have enough money in the bank to go a long stretch without an income. If you do, you should feel fortunate.
Whether you realize it or not, your option set has been evolving since the day you were born. It’s affected by when you were born relative to macroeconomic and other global events, your family and (sadly) its ethnicity and socio-economic status, and what you make of your life opportunities from an early age. The level of education you pursue, the specialty you choose, your grades, and your early work experience all serve as a foundation for your longer-term professional success. Over time, your ongoing work experience, your performance, and your internal and external reputation play a greater and greater role. (Hopefully by the time you’re 30, no one is really all that interested in what you did in high school anymore.) As you progress in your career, new options emerge and others fall away. That’s inevitable, and it’s important that you put the work into keeping open the options that are most important to you. If you don’t, you put yourself at risk of having to stick with a job even if you’re not happy or, worse, putting yourself and your family in a tenuous financial position.
Ask the Right Questions
As a few “acid test” questions, ask yourself:
- How long could I manage financially if I decided to quit my job?
- What would I do instead if I suddenly didn’t have my current job?
- What would I do if I weren’t able to do this job any longer, due to injury or illness?
- Would I still take this job if I were in the job market right now?
Admittedly, this last question comes at the topic from a different angle, but it’s a quick way to test whether you are staying too long with a job or employer. If you wouldn’t be willing to take the job again if offered, you should probably be looking for a new role.
In terms of specific preparation for the need to implement a Plan B, ask yourself:
- Is my resume up to date?
- How is my network inside my company and externally?
- Do I have relationships with the search firms and individual recruiters who work in my chosen area of focus (industry, function, geography, etc.)?
- How are my savings, spending, and debt levels? How long would I be able to be out of the job market in an emergency situation?
- What is the value of any unvested / deferred cash, options, equity, or other income I would be forfeiting if I left my job?
- Do I have an alternate means to secure health insurance for myself and my family?
Planning the Next Step
Again, even if you love your current job and feel an incredible sense of loyalty to your current organization and the people with whom you work, you should always view yourself as in the market for a better opportunity. You should always take calls from recruiters and at least hear them out. Who knows? Maybe they’re approaching you with a fantastic opportunity, one even better than the current role you love. You won’t know if you don’t take their call or respond to their email.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean you should be unfocused in your career strategy. You need a clear career backup plan, and your back-up options need to fit as well as possible into that plan. It doesn’t mean you should take a new role just to escape your current one. As the adage goes, “Better to run to a job than to run from a job.” It doesn’t mean you should be a “job hopper.” Moving too quickly from job to job works against you, as no one is anxious to hire someone they believe won’t stay in a role for at least a few years.
Finally, it doesn’t mean that you should leap blindly into a new opportunity. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the street. New roles almost always sound more exciting than they really are when they’re being pitched to you by a recruiter or a prospective hiring manager. Do your homework. Check out sites like Glassdoor to see what people say about working in the company you’re considering. Ask people in your network who might be familiar with it. Read about the company – its financial situation, competitive positioning, funding (if it’s a start-up), ownership (public, PE-backed, family-owned, etc.), its growth plans and broader business strategy. Ask the questions that really matter to you in the interview process. Understand the compensation framework. For example, will a considerable part of your proposed compensation come from deferred cash or equity that would act as “golden handcuffs” that you would forgo if you wanted to leave the job? Overall, it’s impossible to know from the outside exactly what a job will be like, but you can certainly develop a strong view if you do enough research.
By investing the time in keeping back-up options available to yourself, you are doing critical career planning. Think of it as career insurance. In an ideal world, you won’t need to act on any of these back-up plans – certainly not in an emergency situation, at least – but it’s critical to have thought them through and done the work in the instance you do.