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A big pay raise is tempting, but ask yourself 4 essential questions before you take that job or promotion

The chief diversity officer at Bridgewater Associates observes that higher pay is especially compelling for job seekers saddled with student debt. But his advice to all is to look deeper to know if it’s the best opportunity to advance your career and personal growth.

A big pay raise is tempting, but ask yourself 4 essential questions before you take that job or promotion
[Source images: nuchao/iStock; Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash]
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The pandemic led many people to reevaluate their careers. A recent study from human resources software and services giant, Ceridian, found that 64% of Americans were actively looking for new jobs or would at least consider leaving their current employer if approached by another company. This was especially true among workers under 30, three-fourths of whom said they’re willing to make a career move.

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The allure is palpable. Compensation packages are attractive, and employers are offering increased flexibility. Most companies are also aggressively courting women and historically underrepresented minorities. If you’re on the receiving end of this increased outreach, how do you decide if an enticing offer is really a wise move? Especially for younger workers saddled with student debt, it’s easy to grasp the pull of higher pay. But you need to look deeper to know if a new job is really the best opportunity to advance your career and personal growth.

Aspirations versus goals

It’s hard to do that effectively without first setting clear goals. The more specific your goals, the better. It’s one thing to aspire to a C-Suite role. It’s another to assert, “My goal is to be a Fortune 100 CFO in 15 years.” Either target will help you rule some opportunities out and others in. But the second is far better for differentiating high-value choices from shiny distractions. You can more clearly—and proactively—identify the jobs and employers that will push you toward your ultimate objective. And you’re better equipped to weigh all the things that will position you for a senior CFO role, not simply assess whether the next job pays more than the current one.

Assess your position using Net Present Value (NPV)

When colleagues—especially those early in their career—ask my advice on new opportunities, I start by telling them to focus more on long-term gains and “hidden benefits” than on comparing the headline offer to their current circumstances.  A new role’s “Net Present Value” is far more important than its immediate impact on next year’s pay. A good career is built on roles that compound into a steeper and steeper trajectory. Your next job may pay less than other alternatives but be a better choice if it opens up future roles that bend your career curve up. In other words, its immediate financial value may be lower than another choice, but its net present career value may be much higher.

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Questions that keep NPV in focus

Of course, compensation matters. And generally, you’d like each career step to come with higher pay. But to help ensure you’re not just doing short-term math, there are several good questions to ask about any job opportunity.

If this job hadn’t found me, would I have sought it out?

Everyone loves to be courted.  When a marquee firm or executive recruiter contacts you about an opportunity, it’s hard not to take interest. The conversation flatters your self-worth and excites your sense of possibilities. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right job or the right time for a move. Flip the tables.

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Based on your goals, you should have your own list of roles that would be good next steps and the top companies that would best position you for growth and visibility. If the company that contacted you is not on your list, proceed with caution. It’s fine to consider whether your list missed a compelling option. But don’t get seduced down a distracting path just because someone flattered you with a recruiting call.

Am I signing up for an exciting sprint instead of running a marathon?

It’s fine to take on exciting, perhaps high-paying, short-term assignments, if there’s a reliable path to the next step. But a short sprint—no matter how exciting—that leaves you on the sidelines afterward can be a dangerous detour. Carefully assess the dynamics. For example, depending on the company and its culture, an international assignment can be both exhilarating and accelerating. But in other cases, high home office turnover and frequently shifting priorities could leave you out of sight and out of mind at the end of your assignment, causing your career to stall; or worse, to derail.

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Ask who, then what? (in that order)

Most job descriptions focus on what you will be doing but rarely mention who you’ll be doing it with. Is your prospective new boss the type who develops their people and advocates for opportunities? Or one who more often neglects the team and takes credit for their work? Especially early in your career, the difference between these two archetypes can matter much more than the literal role you accept.  You’ll need mentors and sponsors to maximize your career potential. Every job choice is a chance to select some of the people who will play important roles in your future.

What is my probability of success?

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Before you sign up for any job, visualize the tangible and quantifiable contributions you’ll bring to continue building your track record of success. Be honest with yourself. Are you ready to take the next step or are there still some gaps you need to fill to make success a probability, not just a possibility? Because any career is a marathon, it’s better to pace yourself and win than to sprint too fast and run out of gas.

Remember, your career is an arc

There’s a lot to consider when vetting any new opportunity. One size does not fit all, but as a broad guide, it’s useful to consider different priorities at different phases. Early in your career, find roles that provide deep, rich training opportunities. 

As you learn and grow, focus on higher visibility, higher impact roles during the middle of your journey. If leveraged well, that puts you in a position to apply experience and wisdom to leadership roles at the top of your company. 

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And remember, you don’t have to win the race by yourself. An old proverb provides good advice: “If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”


Alan Bowser is co-head of the Americas region and chief diversity officer at Bridgewater Associates.