Several years ago, I went back to a job I was familiar with.  Until that point, it was all about moving up as fast and as far as I could go.  Then something amazing happened.  I became a mother and realized that whatever fulfillment and challenge I get from my work, it is nowhere near as important as what my son needs from me to grow up.

I remember the moment vividly.  We were only home for a few weeks before I was reengaging with colleagues and chomping at the bit to do some work.  If I didn’t, I was fearful that I’d be speaking baby talk for the rest of my career.

I was on the phone, trying to wrap up a conversation, when my son pulled on my pant leg to get my attention.  Keep in mind he was 8 months old, had known me for all of a few weeks, and was in a completely new place with new people.  I should not have been working, but – hey – no one is perfect.

I recall being frustrated because I just wanted to wrap up the call, and then I would give him all the attention he wanted.  I looked at him – really looked at him – and my entire life changed.  That was the moment that I realized he needed me more than I needed work.  I never imagined that day would happen.

I am a type A, overachieving workaholic.  I love what I do and – before that day – work gave me a sense of completion and fulfillment that I had not received anywhere else.  You could not have paid me to give up working.

Then I had my “a-ha” moment.  I would never be the same.  I got off the phone and focused on my son.  I worked when he napped and slept (which was a lot) so that I could extend my two month absence into three.  And I got a call out of the blue from my old team that would change my life.  “Will you come back?”

ExpectationsAt the end of the three months, I took a voluntary demotion – imagine that – and was back in a role I knew well.

Was it as challenging as I was used to?  No.  Certainly there were challenges, but nothing like I had been experiencing in the prior role.

However, I had a great team, a highly flexible environment, and was able to balance being a leader and a new mother in a way where I wasn’t compromising too much either way.

Within two years (okay, maybe it was one), I was chomping at the bit to do more.  Over the next several years, I would evaluate many opportunities for change.  Manager of the biggest program in my business unit, a senior director position in another business unit on the other side of the country, leader of a new organization…if it was out there, I was looking at it.

None of them seemed to fit and I couldn’t figure out why.  I should have wanted any of them – and at first I did.  The more I found out about each role, however, the less enthusiastic I was.

I had an awesome life – a great family and a job that offered the opportunity to spend more time with them than most working parents have.  What was there to complain about?

I needed more.  That’s when my photography took off, and later I started writing my book.  I spent my free time, usually while my son was sleeping, pushing myself to learn new things and put my overachieving self into overdrive.

About 8 months ago, there was another opportunity that I considered.  It was the bright shiny penny and should have been everything I wanted.  Within days, I went from excitement about the opportunity, to misery at the thought of getting the job.  I removed myself from the running and proceeded to spend some time figuring out what was going on.  That’s when I figured out “My Five Things.”

For most of my career, I could just worry about myself.  I didn’t have a spouse or a child and could focus entirely on my next challenge.  It didn’t matter if it was around the corner or around the globe.  If it was a challenge, I was there.

Becoming a wife provided some limitations on my decision-making – you can’t just cross-country whenever you want when you both work and have a mortgage.  But I was still pretty open to chasing after opportunities in the local area.  Becoming a mother changed all that, but I didn’t change my approach to looking for opportunities.  Until a few months ago.

I sat down and thought about what I wanted in a dream job.  I had a lot of what I wanted in my existing job, so why did I want to leave?  What was I looking for?  What did I already have that was keeping me there, in spite of the challenging opportunities I was finding?

The result was “My Five Things” – a list of the five characteristics of my dream job.  Anything less than all five, and I might as well stay where I am.  If I could find all five, then the job was meant for me and I’d be all over it like stink on a monkey.  So, what are my five things?  The job must…

  1. Challenge me, make me stretch in my abilities as a leader and problem solver
  2. Provide an opportunity for me to learn new things, something different than what I’ve done before
  3. Be in an environment that celebrates my personal leadership style and have a culture that aligns to the type of culture I try to build in my teams
  4. Allow me to be home for dinner every night (excluding limited travel) and spend quality time with my family when I am home
  5. Be flexible so that I can offer flexibility in return for my team’s hard work, and do the same for myself when my family needs to come first

My job at the time gave me the last three, so I looked for opportunities outside work to accomplish the first two.  I became an accomplished photographer and am trying to wrap up the book I started months ago.

Though I was not consciously searching for “My Five Things” at the time, none of the jobs I looked at would allow for the quality of life I was experiencing with my family.

As I said earlier, I know my son needs me more than I need my work, so I wanted a job where I could be successful and continue to be the type of mother I strive to be.  In addition, in many cases the job fit didn’t feel right – my style didn’t seem to align with some of the organizations I looked at.  If the fit was wrong, I knew I’d frequently feel frustrated at work, and I’d bring that home with me.  No thanks – I don’t want to bring work to the dinner table if I can avoid it.

Once I had my five nailed down, it was amazing what happened.  I stopped looking.  I focused on my current job and my family, figuring that the right opportunity would make its way in my direction.  My manager gave me a new project to tackle, and I had the opportunity to learn something new.  I knew it wasn’t for forever, but I love a challenge and it kept me from looking around for a little while.

About three months later, my manager asked me into his office and presented me with another challenge.  Our organization was about to start a major transition and he wanted to know if I was interested in leading it.  The new organization would definitely force me to stretch my abilities and learn new things, so I was absolutely interested, but I needed to meet the man that I’d be working for to know if it would hit on all of my five things.

Within a few minutes of meeting him, I knew.  This was my dream job.  My new manager wanted to build a culture aligned to the traits and characteristics I believe in and try to model for my team.  He has a family he adores, believes in working hard and playing hard, with flexibility for all.  And, well, it’s all new things we’re doing, so it will be challenging with a lot of learning along the way.  All five things, right there for the taking.  I’ve been in the new role for a few months now and it continues to put a smile on my face every day.

Now that I’ve figured out the key to finding my dream job, I’ve been sharing it with others.  We have been hiring quite a bit over the last few months to build out our team, so I have the chance to talk to individual contributors and managers that are looking for their next role.

I’m finding that many of them are chasing the bright, shiny penny – so I ask them what they want.  “What are your five things you’re looking for?”  Most of them don’t know what I’m talking about, so I explain and send them off to think about what they really want for their life, not just their next job.

What do I want in a new person on my team?  Someone that wants to be there – wants to be part of what we’re trying to accomplish and the team we’re trying to build.  That is probably the #1 thing I want to know when I bring someone new into the organization.

How can someone know that they want to be on my team if they don’t know what they want in a job, in a work environment, and for their life?  A few people I’ve interacted with are still chasing that penny, but many of them have come back and – based on what they are looking for – it seems like the team would be a good fit for them and they’d be a good fit for the team.

The five things are not just a way to find your dream job, but as a hiring manager, knowing someone else’s five things might be a good way to find your dream employee.