Career Decisions

After 6 and a half years of advising MBA students on their job searches, I finally decided to take a new job myself, with an executive search firm. I was genuinely torn about this decision, but hope that sharing my thought process here will help others in their own career decisions. I evaluated the offers (and recommend others do the same through five different lenses.

The Next-Year Offer: This is where, in my experience, most people focus, but it encompasses many dimensions: Salary and Benefits, Interest in the Work, Location, Team, Work hours, and Pride in the Organization are probably the main ones.

  1. Salary: The university offered to work with me to find an opportunity to teach a class over the summer, which would have represented a salary increase of ~10% for me, but the search firm’s expected compensation in year 1 is still somewhere around 20% higher (with a fairly wide range due to commissions). The University benefits, however, are considerably more generous, both on the retirement contribution front and on the health insurance, so the total package difference in year one cuts slightly towards the search firm, but likely only by ~$5,000 per year, which is not nothing, but also not highly decisive. +1 for Search.
  2. Interest in the Work: I had an interview for an executive search firm several years ago, around the time that I joined the university, so it’s been something I’ve been curious about for a while. At the same time I love teaching, and the opportunity to create a new class was very exciting. Helping young job-seekers feels like it makes a personal difference in a way that helping sophisticated clients does not. +1 University.
  3. Location: The search firm told me that I could work from anywhere. Working with the University is still primarily on-campus. We love the town, but my wife’s career could take us elsewhere, potentially even in the near future, so the flexibility was huge. +3 for the search firm.
  4. Team: I loved the team that I worked with at the university, but was also really impressed and felt like I clicked with the search people throughout the interview process. I’d probably give a slight edge to the people I know, v. those I’ve interviewed with, so +1 for the University.
  5. Work Hours: Everyone says search takes a lot of time, especially in the first year, learning the ropes. Work at the University can be very intense, but there are quieter periods as well, when most students have jobs already. Vacation allotments are relatively generous at the University, while the search firm has “unlimited” (i.e., no guaranteed) PTO. Though taking on a new class would require quite a lot of work, I know I’d enjoy that work. +2 for the University.
  6. Pride in the Institution: I work for a great university that’s well-known, while the search firm (outside of the search industry and those that it serves) is not a household name. +1 for the University.

    So thinking about the immediate next year, the University had a slight edge: +1.

The Expected Mid-term: This is where the search firm started to pull ahead. Even with the increase from teaching, I would have seen my compensation at the university increase by ~20% over a 7 year period. Advancement seemed slow and unpredictable; I’d received great reviews, but no clarity on how to get a promotion. At the search firm even one promotion would yield a greater expected compensation increase than I’d seen in my whole time at the University, and they expressed confidence that I could see that within two years. +3 for Search.

Reversibility: I’ve never done search work before, and some people seem great in the interview process, but could turn out to be dreadful teammates. Considering the experience that I’ve had in higher education, though, it’s probably relatively easy for me to find another job in higher ed, while later in my career it might be harder to make the pivot to a more corporate role if I’m seen as exclusively a “higher ed guy”. +1 for Search.

The Best Plausible Long-term Scenario: I phrase this deliberately. It’s hard to predict the future, but I’d like to know what the best-case scenario is that still has at least a ~10% chance of occurring. On the University side, it felt like this is “mostly status quo, but better.” I had applied for another role outside of my group that I didn’t get interviewed for, and the leadership had made clear that though I might be able to teach a little, my primary appointment would remain within the career center, and becoming faculty would be a separate decision. So maybe I could reach a 50-50 split between teaching and career work, with the aforementioned geographic and lifestyle pros and cons, and I might be able to earn as high as $175k. On the search side, I might really like the work and be really good at it. If so, I could make partner in 5 years and earn $500k+. +3 for Search.

The Worst Probable Scenario: Higher ed feels very stable, and the career team even more so. Through a reorganization and Covid, no one in my team was let go, and having delivered solid results over time I would have to think that my job is secure from all but gross malfeasance. Search could go poorly. I might hate it, the firm might outgrow demand and lay people off. On the other hand, I’ve had a small but meaningful number of private clients reach out for career advice/interview prep already, and once I’ve had some experience helping more senior people in their careers get placed into a wider range of companies than just consulting firms, I would be able to provide better advice and serve a wider range of audiences there, so I might still be able to retain some flexibility as an independent career coach. And/or, as noted above under reversibility, I might be able to find the right kind of role in higher education again (though there’s certainly no guarantee that there would be an appropriate opportunity in the geographies we’d prefer). +1 for Search.

Conclusion: I took the Search firm offer. Besides the analysis above, I know that psychological research has shown that most people overestimate the challenge associated with change. I have also told my wife for the past few years that if she had an opportunity that she were excited about elsewhere I would be willing to move; taking a remote position felt like an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is on that front. Lastly, being able to (hopefully) work my schedule around some mid-day breaks so that I have more time with my daughter feels like a tremendous opportunity, and one worth taking before she starts going to school.

Coda: This is not the first time that I’ve left a job at least in part because of lack of clarity on advancement. Had the University given me the opportunity to teach something this Spring, as I had originally requested, I probably would have accepted it, been excited about the growth, and not even looked at anything else. Instead, it took nearly 2 months from the time I said that I wanted to teach to the time I was told it would be possible to do something. That delay meant that Spring was no longer an option, and meant that I had spent that time exploring alternatives in case the answer was negative. I believe the University is in a strong position to continue to succeed in placing students in top consulting firms; we went from 15 to 50 students receiving McKinsey, Bain, and BCG offers over the time I was there. But there will likely be some transition headaches before my role is filled. Two lessons for HR teams/managers: 1. If someone tells you they’re looking for growth, they’re looking at other jobs too. Treat it with urgency if you want to keep them. 2. Think about your employees’ trajectories as an alternative between outside and inside growth. Especially if you’re not paying top-of-market, it makes sense to have some advantages/perks/opportunities that favor internal candidates unless you actively want churn.

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