As an achiever, you are going to have many choices to make about career moves. And when it comes to the ones about changing course, I want to share the following with you, because I think it will really help your strategy when you get to that point. It’s all about timing.

This came up earlier this week when I was talking to a friend of mine, let’s call her Laura. In Laura’s case, she was making a choice between staying the course where she was, versus taking on a new role that had just been presented to her. She acknowledged that both of those choices would mean deferring her longer-term goal of making a move into a completely different sector.

Since she’s early career, she figured, “Well, I have plenty of time.”

Well, this reminded me of some excellent advice I got when I was in mid-career.

My “Crossroads Moment”

I was in investment banking, and I’d gotten approached by a recruiter while I was on maternity leave to make a big shift into the Treasury Department of a consumer products company.

He said to me, “May, this is the time to make the move, if you’re ever going to make that move, because if you stay, you’re going to stay for another 5 to 10 years.”

I was an Executive Director, and he was right. I was going to want to make Managing Director and then stay on and enjoy being a Managing Director, which is exactly what I did.

But I’m really thankful to him, because he pointed out that I was actually at a crossroads moment, which I hadn’t realised.

I thought I would have that option to make that bigger jump every single year, but it really wasn’t like that. That’s what I said to Laura. I said, “When you’re making these course changing type of career choices, then it is a bit of a discontinuous function; you’re not always going to have that option.”

Three Optimal Times To Change Career

In fact, what I’ve come to realise is that there are, in my experience, about three natural times when you can make that course changing move the most efficiently.

The first is when you’re early in your career because then you’re just raw material. People always feel that they can train you to be whatever they need you to be in their company. That’s generally the first three to five years, maybe a little longer, maybe a little shorter.

Then the next juncture is in the mid-career, which is when I was approached. That’s because you’ve built up enough skills that are leverageable and transferable that you can make a leap. And sometimes you bring a new perspective in, and everybody else who is already in the organisation is also making a shift from being an individual contributor to being more of a team leader, and people leader.

Then the third time is when you’re super senior. So, we often see people moving from CFO of one company to be CFO of another one in a completely different industry. Same with CEO type roles.

The Elevator Analogy

So, I drew this analogy for Laura about thinking of it as being in an elevator, and in the early years you’re on a local, and the elevator doors open at every floor and you can change elevator banks very easily.

But then, all of a sudden, it becomes an express and it’s very hard to get over to the other elevator bank, until you get to that middle point again. Then, again, the doors seem to open on one or two or three floors – think one or two or three years in the middle – and you can get over to a different elevator bank pretty naturally.

Then, again, it becomes an express until you get to a very senior level, and then the elevator banks connect again.

Now, you can, obviously (as an aside), make a move in-between but it’s just a lot more difficult. It’s less natural and you often have to go down and across to get up, so it just takes more effort.


In conclusion, when it comes to making choices about changing your course, here are two takeaways:

  • First is that staying where you are option is actually a choice. Yes, it’s a choice. And, in fact, it’s a decision that you are making every single day, probably without realising it, right? Just us showing up to work means that we are choosing to stay the course – it’s a decision.
  • On the other hand, if you want to change course then, all other things equal, don’t leave it too long. Don’t leave it too late, because you never know when you’re going to be on an express and it’s going to be more difficult to change elevator banks. Just have that awareness and make sure that you’re thinking about it consciously.

So now I’d love to hear your experiences and your wisdom and your insights about making these kinds of course changing decisions – how you made them, your experiences with them and any wisdom to share, particularly around this timing point.