I grew up in Manhattan, where if you know how to drive you know that you are unable to make a right turn at a red light. I now live in the suburbs and I make a right on red every morning on the way to the train station. Which got me thinking…

The streetlight can act as a satisfying metaphor for when your career is at a crossroads, but I’d like to suggest a version of the streetlight metaphor for addressing your career decision making process when you know where you want to go.

When you approach a red light you have 4 options:

(1) Wait patiently for it to turn green.

(2) Make a full stop, and then turn right when you know no cars are coming.

(3) Illegally drive straight through the red light, risking an accident and a ticket.

(4) Make an illegal left turn, risking an accident and a ticket.

Let’s consider options 1 & 2 as metaphors for making a career move when you know what you want to achieve in your career (within a margin of error, you should never be too sure).

There is virtue in waiting for your light to turn green and progressing on your chosen career path patiently. You can work hard, check the boxes and do the extra 20% that no one else is doing while you are waiting for that light to change. Your manager will likely appreciate your patience, and you can earn the respect of your peers and leaders.

What would a right on red look like in your career? In this metaphor, a right on red isn’t making erratic career changes (that’s more like the left on red). What we are discussing here is the the opportunity to take a slightly different path towards your end goal, a path that enables you to collect experiences without having to wait in line with everyone else. Turning right on red can also give you a sense of fulfillment — giving you the chance to realize that it’s often the experience of the next role you are seeking not the title.

Perhaps your goal is to manage a team, but you know that by sticking to the usual path you will have to wait to gain the experience of mentoring people. There are often opportunities to mentor new teammates or more junior colleagues. You can learn a few things from coaching people in an informal capacity, things that will serve you well when it’s actually your responsibility to coach your direct reports.

It’s important to recognize the difference between a right on red and a stop sign.

At a stop sign the cars catty-corner to you are expecting you to make a turn and will give you the space and time to do so. At a red light, however, the drivers on the perpendicular street are not on the look out for you — it’s their turn to drive full speed. In other other words, when you turn right on red you are intersecting someone else’s green light…their turn to go full speed in their career. When turning right on red, you need to learn how to time it and merge.

Take the example above, it could be that your informal mentee comes to you with a question about how to best approach a challenge they are having with their manager. Is that a red light or stop sign? In this example you are making a right on red because the manager is driving on their light and you are merging into their lane incognito. Put otherwise, stop signs are part of your every day career decision making process. Making a right at a stop sign doesn’t impact any one else. When you make a right on red you have to recognize that you’ve changed the traffic pattern for others as well.

[Tangentially, I get the following question all of the time, “how do I know if I need to get an MBA”? Leveraging the right on red framework, I view getting an MBA in two ways: (1) Either you are incredibly clear on your career path and you know that getting an MBA is a decisive right on red to gain experiences and not wait, or (2) You are a bit lost and getting an MBA is akin to pulling into a gas station to reset your destination on Waze.]

Back to the informal mentor example, what are some of the things you can learn? You can come to recognize that…

  • Mentoring isn’t managing.
  • You don’t need permission to lead, you can decide when the time is right.
  • People will come to recognize you as a resource even though you don’t have the formal title “Ms. Resource”

Now apply turning right on red to things other than managing. Think about how much you can learn. It’s pretty compelling to make that turn, isn’t it?

Originally published on Medium.com

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