MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Describe one make or break moment in your career–how did you navigate it? is written by Angela Dorn, chief legal officer at SingleStopUSA.
Almost everyone faces “make or break” moments in their career, so everyone needs to learn how to manage them effectively. The best way I’ve learned to navigate these moments is through rigorous analysis and self-assessment, focused on one question: how will the resolution tie into your core values? While some people might think that make or break moments stem from challenging work assignments, I disagree. For the most part, when skilled professionals are assigned a difficult task at work they know how to handle it: work longer hours, delegate to the right people, etc. In my opinion, a true make or break moment is having to make a difficult career decision. Such as deciding whether or not to work for a certain company, boss, or even in a certain field. You’re forced to ask yourself: where do I go from here?
The best way to answer this question is to understand what you as a professional and as a person truly value. For example, I faced a make or break moment a few years into my career as an attorney when I was working as an associate at a law firm. We represented the trustees of a major state pension fund. We had been assigned the task of researching some arcane Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) based investment question that a future pension recipient had asked at a public meeting: can our Kansas state pension fund be barred from investing in California municipal bonds?
My partner chuckled. He said while he did not know the answer to that question, he did know that the investors should have been more concerned about the fact that the funds actuarial tables showed that the fund was underfunded, relative to its number of pension participants, and in 15 years or so, there would be no money to pay pensions owed. In other words, all the investors who were concerned about what their retirement fund was invested in should have been more concerned about the fact that the state would never be able to afford to pay out their full pensions.
My partner smirked over the investors’ dumb luck and his own genius in having discovered it, but I was literally sick to my stomach. There had to be something that we could do to properly represent our client, while also considering the interest of the pension participants. I even consulted friends who knew me (and the law) well, to assure myself that I wasn’t just pointlessly flying off the handle. Unfortunately, they all disagreed. My partner’s position was completely legitimate–we were doing nothing wrong by not “coming clean” to the pension holders. We were not obligated to speak out about the fund’s future solvency, and as far as my boss was concerned we were not going to.
This became a make or break moment for me because I could not reconcile our “clean hands” with my own personal values and beliefs about law. I did not become an attorney to stand idly in cases like this. It was clear that the firm I had chosen to build a career at did not did value my core beliefs and therefore, forced me to realize this was not the job for me. This was a scary revelation, but also incredibly liberating. I had to find work that was more in line with my core values. It wasn’t long after this realization that I became a founding member of Single Stop USA, a nonprofit that focuses on connecting people to the resources they need for economic security. The experience I had as an attorney helped me recognize what I valued as a professional. This make or break moment brought enormous clarity to my life—and career.
Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: Describe one make or break moment in your career–how did you navigate it?
Build-A-Bear CEO: How to navigate difficult career decisions by Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.
Why I gave up everything to start a career in Singapore by Perry Yeatman, CEO of Perry Yeatman Global Partners.
Why I choose to put my children before my work by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.
How this Google executive handles stress at work by Margo Georgiadis, president of Americas Operations at Google.