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Bui Village, Ghana, 2009
Bui Village, Ghana, 2009
Devin John Tepleski

With her bestseller Lean In, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg sparked a national conversation about how women can advance to leadership positions at work.

In appearances from 60 Minutes to the cover of Time magazine, Sandberg beat the drum, encouraging women to invest more in their careers rather than hold themselves back because of lack of confidence or concern over their ability to balance work and family.

The ensuing debate has prompted a key question relevant to both sexes: Would you, too, benefit from "leaning in" at work -- that is, putting more time, energy, and creativity into your job to get ahead?

It sounds possibly exhilarating -- or impossibly exhausting. Maybe, depending on what you want and where you are in your life, you'd actually be better off leaning out, directing your best efforts into fulfilling career and personal priorities that you, not your employer, have set. Says John Morris, co-founder of Crestwood Advisors in Boston: "Many people just want to get off the treadmill and have a more satisfying life."

One thing's for sure: In an era of slow economic growth and repeated rounds of corporate downsizing, the rewards of tackling ever-greater responsibilities at the office are dwindling for many.

A survey earlier this year by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of workers in the U.S. don't feel valued or adequately compensated in their jobs, and six in 10 complain they don't have good opportunities for advancement.

Where you are in your life and career matters too. If you're in a dying industry or just tired of the same old same old, you might reap a bigger payoff redirecting your energy from climbing the corporate ladder to building contacts and credentials to help you transition to a new career.

Maybe you're eager for a job that allows you to make a greater contribution to the world. Or if you've been working 50 to 60 hours a week for decades, you might just want to slow down to free up more time for your family, hobbies, and other pursuits. Indeed, in a recent survey, only one in four Money readers said their top career priority was to land a promotion or raise; nearly half wanted more flexibility or more meaning.

Put businessman-turned-professor Jay Friedlander, 44, in the latter camp. As chief operating officer for a group of organic-food restaurants in the early 2000s, Friedlander routinely put in 60 hours a week or more, sometimes working seven days straight. He was constantly flying from his home in Portland, Maine, to visit the chain's other locations, and worried about the time he was missing with his son, Max, then a toddler.

By 2008, eager to step away from number crunching and into a more family-friendly lifestyle doing work he was passionate about, he accepted an offer to launch a sustainable-business program at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

Friedlander hasn't looked back. These days he still often puts in long hours, but instead of the bottom line, he's focused on teaching students environmentally and socially responsible business practices.

"It's not just my generation that's going to make changes, it's the next generation too," he says. Since he no longer travels, he gets plenty of time together with his wife, Ursula Hanson, 46, a social worker, and Max, now 7, whom Friedlander can now walk to school.

Yes, they've taken a financial hit, as his six-figure income shrank to five, but he has no regrets. He says, "It's a great lifestyle."

Figuring out whether you, too, should lean away from a traditional upward career path with your current employer and into a job that could bring greater fulfillment takes a mix of soul-searching and pragmatic planning, as Friedlander and his family found out. The questions that follow, coupled with practical tips, will help get you started and nudge you to lean in the right direction.

What is your true goal?

The things that Sheryl Sandberg -- or Jay Friedlander -- want out of a career may not be right for you. What is true for most people, says Nancy Miriam Hawley, a Boston leadership coach and business consultant: "The goal of satisfaction and being fully self-expressed at the end of your life is the same."

The rub is figuring out what path will produce that result. Stewart Friedman, founding director of the Work/Life Integration Project at the Wharton School of Business, suggests a couple of exercises that can help:

Evaluate how you invest your time. Assign 100 points to your waking hours each week and figure out how many of them you devote to four key areas -- work, family, community, and your private self.

Then ask if your current work lets you accomplish your goals in those areas, and whether the time you're investing in each quadrant reflects how much you want to spend there. "See where there is compatibility and conflict," Friedman advises.

Tell yourself a story. To determine how best to refocus your time, write a short narrative of your life, focusing on critical episodes, Friedman says. It can illuminate what's given you the most satisfaction, which will help inform what you'd like to do going forward.

That kind of self-reflection led hospital lab technician (and Money reader) Amy Mansfield, 45, to decide not to shoot for a promotion to manager -- despite a possible 40% bump-up in pay from her $60,000 annual salary.

The Macon resident realized she loves the balance her current position provides -- she now works seven days in a row, then is off for seven -- and doesn't want the added pressure she'd face on a higher perch. "I can go home and not worry about anything," she says.

Plus, she has plenty of time to visit her family, spread out from Niagara Falls to Palm Springs, and for other trips, such as a recent getaway to Phoenix to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert. Some weeks Mansfield, who is single, prefers just to stay home and play with her three dogs. She notes, "If I want to sit home and veg, I can."

Does your job offer a way to get you where you want to go?

Whatever your goals are, the next nut to crack is whether you can achieve them in your current job. Not so much? Then it's time to think about leaning out of your position and into pursuits that will set you up for what you really want from your career.

Evaluate yourself. Is greater authority or higher pay what you're after? Take an honest look at your contributions to the company and how you're viewed by both colleagues and higher-ups.

"If your boss isn't involving you in key projects or being an advocate for you, then you might want to lean out more," advises Stefanie Smith, an executive coach at Stratex in New York City. Direct more effort into, say, networking to develop contacts that may lead you to a new job where you'll be more valued or activities that will enhance your personal brand, such as microblogging or establishing a regular Twitter feed.

Not sure what your prospects are at work? Ask your boss what it would take to get promoted. "If there isn't anything you can do, you should be leaning out," Smith says.

Examine long-term trends in your industry. Consider whether changing economic conditions or technologies make it likely that your job may eventually be farmed out to someone or something who'll do the work for a lot less, either domestically or overseas -- an increasingly common development in many fields.

Professionals in "mid-skilled" jobs, from credit analysts to X-ray technicians, are particularly at risk, says Tom Cooley, an economics professor at New York University's Stern School of Business: "The ones who are the most vulnerable are people doing professional but routine jobs that can be automated or done by someone else."

Has your company downsized more than once in the past few years? Is changing technology making parts of your field or job obsolete? Have the head honchos pulled back on resources for your division or nixed initiatives to grow business? One or more "yes" answers is not a good sign.

Some of those factors came into play a few years back when, at age 57, Bob Shirilla, an engineer with 30 years of experience, decided to lean out from his job at EDS, an information technology company now owned by Hewlett-Packard.

Shirilla had been the "lead dog" on teams that installed IT systems for major corporations, but as project demand tapered off, his department was becoming less profitable -- and raises were getting smaller. Shirilla felt that proving his value to his employer was only going to get harder. So he quit to try his hand at building businesses that were a little more fun and left him more leisure time.

Shirilla and his wife, JoAnn, launched two Internet stores: Simply Custom Bags, a tote-bag retailer, and Keepsakes, Etc., which sells sympathy gifts and other items. Both sites have flourished -- they now have several employees -- yet typically require Shirilla to put in only about six hours a day, vs. 10 when he worked at EDS. His flexible schedule gives him plenty of time for golf and to travel with JoAnn, and he's learned valuable new skills, like search engine optimization. "I like the challenge," says the Poland, Ohio, resident.

Figure out your cultural fit. Even if your company is doing well, the job may no longer fill your needs -- or you may no longer match the typical employee profile. Perhaps you've been at the place a long while and the position is very demanding at a time in your life when you want to slow down, or the company has a history of pushing out workers over 50.

In that case, career experts say, it's critical to put effort into seeding other options beforehand, because you're likely to have a harder time than younger colleagues finding a new gig.

That's what Money reader Mark Quiello, 57, of Pompton Lakes, N.J., is doing. A middle manager at a major telecom company, he says, "I'm happy with the status quo." Quiello's goal is to remain in his position until he's ready to retire. He's planning to get a certification in project management that will keep him valuable -- but figures it will also help him with a Plan B if something goes awry at his job and he has to find a new one. He says, "I can't sit on my laurels."

Quiello is practicing what New York City career coach Roy Cohen calls opportunistic career management -- continually cultivating new skills and connections that can aid you in your current job but also help you parachute to a smooth landing if things don't work out. Says Cohen: "You have to look out for yourself and protect your interests."

How far out would you need to lean?

Before you make any major moves, Friedman, author of Total Leadership, suggests trying "a series of small experiments" to improve your work situation. It's possible that you'll need to make only a slight change to become much happier and more effective in every sphere of your life. "Too many people feel more trapped than they need to feel," Friedman says.

Experiment with your schedule. Say your office culture requires everyone to work until 8 p.m. You might ask your boss if you can leave at 6 p.m. on Thursdays and turn off your cell, adding that you think it will boost your overall productivity -- and that you'd like to get her assessment of how it's working in a month.

"Make it about making your boss more successful," Friedman says. Even a small move that doesn't require your supervisor's permission, like hitting the gym at lunch, may change how you feel about your workday.

A bonus: Shifting some time away from work can force you to use your time there more effectively, Friedman says. Your performance really may improve, winning you more latitude to do your job in a way that works for you -- without abandoning your career. "People often discover they've got more room to move than they thought," Friedman says.

Build on your changes. It can take several steps, made over a period of months or even years, to figure out how far you need to go to attain greater satisfaction with your work.

Ask Tai Goodwin, 40. After joining CA Technology in 2007, she considered going after a director's position, a step up from her job as an instructional designer of educational programs. "It was the next logical step," she says. But she realized that as a woman in a male-dominated IT culture, she never felt completely comfortable. She dreaded the corporate politics a bigger job would involve and worried about the time away from her daughter, Shayna, now 10.

So Goodwin began experimenting. First she negotiated a telecommuting arrangement while maintaining her six-figure salary. Then, to give herself more options, she began taking online courses in career coaching. After getting her certification, she started a part-time coaching business in 2008. Finding that she was building steady clients, Goodwin moved in 2009 from Philadelphia to the Twin Cities area, where the cost of living was lower and going out on her own would be more affordable. She continued telecommuting.

Last year Goodwin finally quit to run her coaching business full-time. She's earning less but feels good about where she is. "I am building my way back up," says Goodwin. "I wouldn't trade the freedom I have for another six-figure income."

How will you swing the change financially?

As Goodwin has found, leaning out often entails a financial hit. No matter how jazzed you are to make a change, "you still have to put food on your plate and feed your family," notes Jeff Stibel, CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility, a credit ratings provider for small businesses. Here's how to pull it off:

Line up the financing. Review the resources you have to tap and whether doing so will endanger your long-term security. Having ample retirement savings, a pension, or a paid-off home will give you more breathing room. For example, Bob Shirilla could afford to try his Internet businesses because he'd saved prodigiously for retirement and could use his pension to supplement the income from his new ventures.

Lower your operating expenses. Think about what trade-offs you're willing to make, suggests adviser John Morris. To afford his transition from COO to college professor, for instance, Jay Friedlander and his wife moved from a large ocean-view condo in Portland to a 1,500-square-foot fixer-upper in Bar Harbor, and cut dining out from 12 times a month to two.

A self-described lifelong "pathological saver," he regularly reviews the family's spending on spreadsheets to identify areas where they can save (no cable TV), while also allowing for some splurges (an upcoming trip to Europe). "We don't live an ascetic life," says Friedlander, adding, "I'm a big believer in running the numbers. That gives you power."

Set realistic parameters. Put a time limit on your career shift at first -- say you'll try your new approach for three years and if you haven't made a go of it by then, you'll lean back in, Morris recommends.

The older you are, the more conservative you should be, adds Stibel, especially if your plan involves starting your own business. "Your ability to take crazy risks that turn you into Mark Zuckerberg goes away," he says. Instead, focus on a small venture that meets a known need in a nearby marketplace. "Think little and think local," he says.

In general, Friedman believes, small, incremental changes often add up to a life that is much more meaningful. "I see it happen all the time," he says.

Then, too, if you lean out gently, you don't need to worry as much about falling down.