Many of us will reach a career crossroads. One that will determine the shape of our future. A common one is eventually having to decide whether you remain an expert or choose to become a leader.

Starting out…

Many of us begin to specialise very early on. Our GCSE, A level and degree choices simultaneously open and close doors to many different occupations. Make the wrong choices and it can be very hard to back up and go again. Picking not to do sciences or languages at just 14 can have lifelong implications.

Early careers

Are often about gaining specific skill sets. We train to be a doctor, a plumber, a teacher or a designer. In gaining those skills we become significantly more valuable to employers. Pay rises follow and before long it becomes comparatively difficult to change career direction. Make a big change and you go back to being a trainee – with a trainee’s pay.

As career specialists we often meet people who reach mid-career and decide they’d rather do something completely different. That’s certainly possible but often comes at a price. Especially if you’ve become used to a certain lifestyle and taken on significant financial commitments.

The career crossroads

In many lines of work you eventually reach a career crossroads. You become an ever deeper, and potentially narrower, expert. Or you choose to follow the path into leadership. Both choices have consequences. And too often the crossroads has been passed before individuals realise they’ve made a potentially life changing choice.

The expert

Most of us choose a career because we love doing something. Whether that’s being an engineer, a social worker, a footballer or a designer. There’s something special about mastering a craft. Being the best at what you do.

You gain satisfaction from your work too. Be that in the value you add to society, the profits you make for a business or the new intellectual capital you create.

For many of us work defines who we are. The outputs being as important as the extrinsic rewards we gain like pay and benefits.

The leader

Leaders usually start out as experts. After all, you need key skills and knowledge to climb to the level where taking on leadership is an option.

However becoming a leader often means letting go of being an expert. Let’s use me as an example. I trained as an HR professional, I passed my CIPD examinations almost 40 years ago. I was a functional expert in talent management well into my 40s. Yes, I still get some opportunity to work as a coach and a consultant. However that’s not the reality of leadership.

Today my life is more about budgets and strategy. I spend more time with accountants, auditors, lawyers and other professional advisors than I do with other HR professionals. My job is about driving revenue, worrying about margins, controlling overheads and supporting product development.

One of the challenges for a leader is not trying to permanently demonstrate technical superiority over their people. “Don’t do it like that, do it like this” type interference doesn’t build trust. Nor does it help your people to take ownership and grow.

The lure of leadership

Careers are often spoken of as a ladder. You climb up the rungs and get ever fancier job titles. The problem is those rungs also add stress and demands – and often take you ever further away from the expert path you started out on.

Many years ago I did a project in a technology business. The experts in that business complained regularly about “lack of career opportunities”. By which they meant promotion into executive roles. The lure of the big office, the word Director in your job title and a seat on the senior leadership team looked really exciting. Or at least it did until we got some executives to talk to the engineers about the price they’d paid.

Days in budget meetings. Tackling people issues. Handling customer complaints.  Weeks a year spent on planes and in hotel rooms away from their families. The long hours and constant pressure to deliver. You almost inevitably do increasingly less of the expert stuff the higher you climb. Many decided that being an engineer was far more fun.

Career coaching can play a big part

When you reach the career crossroads you often need help to work out which is the right path. And that’s where talking to an experienced Coach can be invaluable in exploring each direction and getting clarity on your direction of travel. Why not contact us to find out more?