Sunday, September 15, 2013

When Taking a Pay-Cut is a Good Career Move

This month The Savvy Reader Book Club is reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Today is the second in a series of posts I will be writing though out the month inspired by Lean in. Last week we discussed What does "lean-in" mean for you?

Today I want to share what may have been my biggest career mistake:

In the chapter, “It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder” Sheryl Sandberg introduces the metaphor coined by Pattie Sellers “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.” It implies the former career model of spending your entire career at one company continuously progressing up the ladder (while staring at the butt of the person above) no longer applies to most workers. Instead today’s career path is more like a jungle gym. Sheryl writes:
There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. The jungle gym model benefits everyone, but especially women who might be starting careers, switching careers, getting blocked by external barriers, or reentering the workforce after taking time off. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment. Plus, a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top. (Pg. 53)
Sheryl has seen both men and women miss out on great opportunities by focusing too much on career levels.

This message really hit home when Sheryl writes about her friend who after working as a lawyer for four years realizes instead of shooting for partner she’d rather join a company in a sales or marketing role:
One of her clients was willing to hire her in this new capacity but wanted her to start at the ground level. Since she could afford the temporary pay cut, I urged her to make the jump, but she decided against taking a job that put her “back four years.” I understood how painful it was for her to lose hard-earned ground. Still, my argument was that if she was going to work for the next thirty years, what difference does going “back” four years really make? If the other path made her happier and offered her a chance to learn new skills, that meant she was actually moving forward. (Pg. 61)
I had spent years working full-time as a staff accountant while taking the courses I needed to sit for the CPA exam in my spare time. After I passed the exam I began searching for a new job that would utilize my new certification and pay me a larger salary. I talked to one of my former classmates who had been hired by a local CPA firm. She offered to set up an informational interview for me with a partner at her firm to discuss potential job opportunities. She did say I would most likely have to take a significant pay-cut if I were hired as an entry-level accountant at her firm. Since I was looking for an increase in pay not a decrease, I decided to pass on the informational interview. I then proceeded to not send out a single resume to an accounting firm. Instead I went on to work as a manager in an accounting department at a medium-sized company in a dying industry.

Sheryl has learned from her own experience the only criterion that mattered when picking a job was – fast growth. When companies grow quickly, there are more things to do than there are people to do them. When companies grow more slowly or stop growing, there is less to do and too many people to not be doing them. Politics and stagnation set in, and everyone falters.

Another aha moment – I picked this job:
I have always felt I worked at my current job because they were the only company that offered me a job, but while reading Lean in I realized I picked this job. I consciously chose not to pursue a career with an accounting firm. I listened as my current boss informed me the hours were long and the money was tight at his company. Later he would joke I was the only one who came back for a second interview.

I suffered from imposter syndrome – this is a phenomenon where capable people are plagued by self-doubt and is also mentioned in the book. I was  risk averse and terrified I was not qualified to perform a job that was too far out of my comfort zone. 

Sheryl writes about this too:
One reason women avoid stretch assignments and new challenges is that they worry too much about whether they currently have the skills they need for a new role. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, since so many abilities are acquired on the job. An internal report at Hewlett-Packard revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed. Men apply if they meet 60 percent of the requirements. This difference has a huge ripple effect. Women need to shift from thinking “I’m not ready to do that” to thinking “I want to do that – and I’ll learn by doing it.” 
Wow what an eye-opener. I can’t help but wonder where my career would be if I had leaned into a career as a CPA – pay-cut and all – rather than picking a job in another dying industry because that was what I was familiar with.

I have come to the conclusion this book should be given to every women upon graduation. 

Would you consider taking a pay-cut if it meant advancing your career in the long-run? What was your biggest career mistake?

Please Note, I am an Amazon Affiliate


  1. i struggle with this concept of taking a lower-paying job because there's the potential for more career advancement or because it's what you're more passionate about. honestly, i just don't believe in ever reducing your salary because your salary is what you're worth. as you gain more experience, you should be paid more, not less, even if you are going into a job where you have little experience! the employer should value you and the skills you are bringing to the table, and if they cannot see your potential, then don't take it.

  2. I took a slight pay cut for better hours, and the chance to do more/learn more, albeit at a smaller and less prestigious company. Haven't looked back since.

  3. I can't think of my biggest career mistake but I know of one smart decision.

    I was turned down for a promotion because my boss didn't think that I had the qualifications (actually, he asked me not to even apply). I left that position within months to a position that had more seniority then the position he turned me down for. I have to admit though that I want to make sure I have all the qualifications before I apply. Great review.

    Thanks for all your support and linking up to my weekly BlogLovin Hop ( Hope to see you every Thursday.

    Besos, Sarah
    Blogger at Journeys of The Zoo

  4. Catherine,
    Well said. I think most people (myself included) have a hard time taking a voluntary step backwards in pay. I think my mistake was not even trying to pursue a career in auditing. I just took my friends word for it that there would be a paycut. Talk about not leaning in.

  5. NZ Muse,
    Good for you. I once took a pay cut to get out of a really bad situation. I didn't realize it at the time, but it also was a good career move. I would have went to where - except maybe fired - at the joy where I was miserable

  6. Sarah,
    Good for you. I have a friend who continuously gets passed over for promotion at her company. She makes it to like the third interview then always gets the thumbs down from the same guy. I've told her more than once to look elsewhere. I don't know what is holding her back.

  7. Love the new analogy! I kind of did this; I quit my job to go back to school so I could reenter a field I knew I loved and paid more money. (I already had kids, so doing both was unfeasible for our family.) The lack of pay was rough for a few years, but it's starting to pay off.

  8. I know that taking a pay cut is definitely a good move. Sometimes, you have to start over in order to actually get where you NEED to be, not WANT to be.

  9. I definitely suffer from "imposter syndrome." I've been telling myself to get into freelance writing for over a year and I haven't sent out a single application. I studied drama and psychology in college so I have this fear that I'm not qualified or good enough, but I've been maintaining and growing my own blog for the last 18 months with major results. It's go time. This is the week. Thanks for the inspiration.

  10. Imposter syndrome I am very familiar with and struggle with it a lot which shocks people when they find out. I have been working hard on it and my view of myself, improving all the time.

    Working on myself has clearly shown me that it is not just imposter syndrome for me, but I am not really passionate about what I am doing anymore. I have changed a lot this year and have decided to go back to school and get a degree to enable me to work in the career I want, which I already do as a volunteer.

    It will be a big pay cut but I absolutely love the volunteer work I do, so much more than my current work and in a lot of ways they will be able to co-exist, so it won't be too bad. I do believe in taking a pay cut to pursue a career you have more interest in, provided you can still survive and grow financially.

  11. I think I would take a pay-cut if it was a good career move. I've had headhunters interview me for roles that paid a lot more than I make now, but it would require 50-60 hour work weeks and travel that would take me away from my family. I love my current job because I have an amazing team and incredible work/life balance. We actually read Lean In for our company book club, and I loved it!

  12. I was already going up the corporate ladder when my husband and I decided to move and work overseas. When we came back, I was given a lower salary (a lot lower) than what I was expecting (or at least deserve). I decided I was not going to take it and went business full time. Best decision ever! =)

  13. femmefrugality,
    So happy to hear things are working out for you.

  14. Sharon,
    Most definitely. Thanks for the comment.

  15. I did. I took probably a 20-25% cut off the top choosing one job over the other because the higher paying one would have been continuing on the same path that I was on with some room for growth but not much. The lower paying job was harder, working with new people, and offered a lot of room for growth. My salary grew nearly to where it should have been with my first annual review, and I created my next job with that company the following year with a boss that cared about and looked out for me. The year after that, that same boss took me with him to yet another job that was far less stressful, more pleasant, and the best job I'd ever had.
    I don't generally agree with taking pay cuts if you don't have to but if you're doing it strategically, it can make sense. I was looking to expand my horizons and get out of a toxic environment. I got more than I dreamed of: experience, glowing references, great salary and a job that wouldn't exist without that specific experience of working with the people I did.
    I didn't know exactly how it would turn out when I took the job, but I knew what I wanted to do, that I picked the right people to work with to achieve the goals I had going in, and that went a LONG way.

  16. Stephanie,
    Good luck to you. It is hard to not listen to the tiny voice that says you are an imposter, but sometimes we have to just forge ahead. I love your blog and am confident you will be successful.

  17. Kylie,
    I would love to learn more about what you are doing to work on your imposter syndrome feelings. I can sense your passion for your new career in your comment. I can see you want this so much that a pay-cut is going to be a minor glitch in the process.

  18. Raina,
    I know what you mean, I actually stopped seeking out new job opportunities because I know a step-up would mean more stress for me. At this stage of my life it wouldn't be worth it.

  19. Raina,
    Also happy to hear you loved the book.

  20. Revanche,
    What a success story. Taking a pay-cut as part of a strategic plan is excellent advice.

  21. Hiya! I'm visiting from ThrowBackThursday :) I really enjoyed your post - and made me want to read more of your series! Thanks so much for sharing :)

  22. Well I chose the accounting profession because the Master's program had 100% job placement, I was good at numbers and I could do an extra year in school rather than get out in the workforce. I took the lower paying public accounting job at graduation because of advancement opportunities and I Liked the work of an auditor. I didn't like the hours/travel so left at 2 years and I dind't get quite as far in my public career as I hoped. But I wanted a work/life balance and went to industry. The pay raises weren't as good as had I stayed in public, but I did get a balance and less than a 50 hour workweek.

    Lean In sounds like a fantastic book and I've heard such great reviews on it. I hope to read it, someday. Thanks for linking up with Throwback Thursday this week. You always share such great, thought-provoking posts with us.

  23. Ginger,
    Thanks for stopping in. I hope you like the series.