Commentary: Should I work for this company?

You need to ask yourself more questions before you have an answer.

The summer is a time of endings and beginnings.

We’re about to enroll the Darden School of Business’s Class of 2016, among whom many students are looking to end one career path and embark on another. Alumni I’ve been speaking with recently, took vacations, found the time to stop and reflect, and confronted the itch to change employers. And for the Darden Class of 2015, who have had summer internships, this week is probably the closing act: Companies will start to make full-time offers.

Common to all of these groups is a fundamental question: Should I work for this company?

Let me help you reflect on this.

How not to decide

Start by dispensing with some of the most frequently heard — and worst — reasons to sign on, such as money, power, fame, convenience or lifestyle. Mind you, these aren’t trivial; and a partner or mentor may place them at the head of the parade. But these considerations can prompt one to make a decision that seems justified in the short run, but that in the long run may be regretted.

Where to start

The way to begin is to start with a sense of purpose, or intent or calling. As Stephen Covey once wrote, you must “start with the end in view.” For most of us, the “end” will amount to an intuition about the kind of impact one wants to make, the kind of legacy one would want to leave or the help one would want to give to others. If you have a vision or intuition about your “end” in view, everything else will be noise. As the Psalmist said, “Without a vision, the people wander.” If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

The guiding principle

If you address the question of where to work with the end in view, then you get focused on how to get there. This focus drives you to one overarching principle: You should go where you believe that you can you do your best work. Thinking in terms of one’s “best work” helps to define priorities. I don’t mean to suggest that defining one’s focus and priorities is easy. But finding the signal despite the noise is indispensable to charting a course. Here’s some questions to guide you:

Go. Is now the time to go? Is your team depending on you to finish some vital work? Will you slam the door behind you, and leave bitter co-workers behind? Leaving well is one of the hardest challenges in a career.

Where. In what sense is your best work you contingent on a place? Is it a physical location, close to friends and family? A virtual space that grants you connectivity to people who amplify your talents? A spiritual space that gets you in the zone for great work?

You. Are you waiting for someone else to decide for you? You must own the issue. Are you straining over the decision because you simply don’t want to face it?

Believe. This takes courage. When you decide to work for a company you must embrace a lot of uncertainty about the industry, company, your supervisor, and even yourself. There may be good cause for doubts, and perhaps some fears. Ultimately, to decide requires a stroke of faith.

Work. What is the work that you want to do? Like to do? Are prepared to do? Will this company let you do it? Or at least grow into it? And let’s not define “work” too narrowly. Your life’s work could also include serving a community, nurturing loved ones, or repairing some nagging interpersonal problem. Think about the balance of all of these possible demands over the course of your life.

Best. This is the most important word in the whole question. You shouldn’t settle for just any old work. Life is too short for that. The notion of “best” should trigger some deep reflection on how you define success. If you start with some sense of the end in view, your best work will start to define itself.

Conclusion

“You should go where you believe that you can do your best work.” Spoken plainly, this principle seems obvious, hardly a slap-the-forehead insight. Yet in my decades of working with students, alums, and searchers of all kinds, I observe how slowly people come around to this conclusion.

It is better to start with the end in view. That way, the steps to get there tend to define themselves.

Robert F. Bruner is dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. This column was adapted from his blog.

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