Stepping Off the Tracks - Taking a Break from Management

The first time I did it was for health reasons. I was struggling with a cardiac condition and was battling infertility. Although stress wasn’t the root of either problem, I was not naïve to the correlation. As  the rehabilitation director for four sub-acute programs, the intensity of the professional demands had serious medical impact. So I quit to take a staff position with another company, certain that my brief career in management was over.

Yet a year later, health re-acquired, my new company asked me to take over the department director job.

Add six years, after burning myself to a crisp navigating that same company through a national health care policy change, I did it again. I had lost all joy in my job, and decided that my life had not had enough adventure. So I – again – stepped away from management…and moved my family to England to take a staff position with the National Health Service.

Where, after a few months, I was tapped to be a clinical lead.

It was around this time that a level of professional confidence finally chipped its way into my thick skull. Each of these times I’d decided that I was ready to give it all up because my health or my sanity meant more to me, it was really just a waiting game before I eventually bumped headfirst into another opportunity, waiting just around a professional corner.

I have made this decision twice since that time, only now I am confident that those positions are still there when and if I decide it’s a good fit to have that level of responsibility in my life again.

I realized somewhere that I wasn’t gambling with my career by making the choice to step down from management, I was making decisions that were good for me. And as long as the qualities that made me a desirable manager stuck around, then opportunity would be there later if I wanted it.

Why can stepping off the tracks be a good thing to do? 

  • Capable is as capable does. If you need to step away – for your health, for your family – the skills you have that made you desirable as a manager don’t wither like muscles too long from the treadmill. Those skills stay learned, that experience stays with you. True leadership ability isn’t subject to fads or media trends. If you are organized, quick, efficient, a good communicator, well read and well researched, those abilities will be evident to whomever you work for or with.
  • Perspective breeds effectiveness. Nothing made me a better manager the next time around than remembering what being managed felt like. Practices change, corporate visions change, policies and expectations change. It’s one thing to make the changes, it’s another thing to live under them. Every time I went back to a staff position I learned a little more about what a good manager should be.
  • You might just really need to. We are so hell-bent on progress that sometimes we are blind to the possibility that it may not be what we really want. If you’ve reached a place of burnout so deep that you’re truly thinking that your job isn’t right for you, then maybe your job isn’t right for you. This doesn’t mean the exhaustion that accompanies an intense deadline or a product launch – those imbalances are corrected quickly. But the deep-seated, bone-weariness that accompanies repeated exposure to an environment our bodies and brains are telling us are toxic is a meaningful signal and we should listen.
  • Opportunity. Up isn’t always directly over your head. If your company has a lean management track and people become entrenched in those positions, you can wait out your next career step for years and never have a place to go. Moving somewhere else, even if the position is a step down professionally, may move you somewhere where there are simply more doors to open.

Every time I was in discussion with a hiring manager about a supervisor position, I was prepared to explain why I’d stepped down. And let’s be honest, I did not ever say, “Because I was ready to eat my own floor-mats, I was so stressed out.” But I did say things like “needing work-life balance to be more effective,” “realizing that the best opportunities didn’t always mean getting the next promotion,” and “never getting too far from my clinical roots.” Those things were all completely true, and made me seem more like someone who was good at seeing the big picture than someone who was panicking over prematurely gray hair.

And with a good root touch-up, no one ever needs to know that part but me.

Lori, speech pathologist, writer, and business owner, blogs home-family-working-mom drama at In Pursuit of Martha Points.

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