Success Secrets | Knowing when you’ve stayed far too long

Success Secrets | Knowing when you’ve stayed far too long

What criteria should be used to determine if you have been with the same company too long?

—Jason Morrow, Salt Lake City

Your question reminds us of a friend of ours, an investment manager at a highly regarded company in the Midwest, who drove to work one morning, parked his car in the usual spot and then found he simply could not bring himself to get out.

“I guess I stayed on the farm one day too long," he joked later. When we asked him what went wrong, he answered: “It wasn’t one thing. It was everything." No wonder he drove home and called in his resignation.

Obviously, most people don’t decide they’ve overstayed at their companies in such a dramatic fashion. Usually, angst about work creeps in, and then builds until it consumes you. And that can happen early or late in a career.

Gone are the days when, after graduation, you took the best available job and stayed for as many years as you possibly could stand, frustration be damned. These days, it is not unusual to hear of perfectly legitimate careers built on multiple job stints.

So, to your question, how can you tell when it’s time to move on? We wouldn’t set out specific criteria as much as offer four questions to help sort out an answer.

The first is so simple it almost goes without saying, but the fact that a lot of people don’t confront it, including our friend who ended up stuck in his car—a Harvard MBA, by the way—suggests we go ahead and put it out there. Look, do you want to go to work every morning? This is not a matter to be over-thought. Does the prospect of going in each day excite you or fill you with dread? Does the work feel interesting and meaningful or are you just going through the motions to pull a pay cheque? Are you still learning and growing?

We know of a woman who worked in consulting for seven years. She loved her firm and had originally planned a career with it, but suddenly started noticing that she wished every weekend was five days long.

“Basically, I felt like we were putting together massive books in order to make recommendations to people who knew more than we did," she said. “Every day at the office, I felt a little bit more of a hypocrite."

She now happily works on the “front lines", to use her phrase, in the marketing department of a retail company.

Second, do you enjoy spending time with your co-workers or do they generally bug the living daylights out of you?

We’re not saying you should only stay at your company if you want to barbecue with your team every weekend, but if you don’t sincerely enjoy and respect the people you spend 10 hours a day with, you can be sure youwill eventually decide to leave your organization.

Why not make the break sooner rather than later, and start cultivating relationships at a company where you might actually plant roots?

Third, does your company help you fulfil your personal mission? Essentially, this question asks whether your company jibes with your life’s goals and values.

Does it require you, for instance, to travel more than you would like, given your chosen work-life balance? Does it offer enough upward mobility, given your level of ambition?

There is no right or wrong answer to questions such as these, only a sense of whether you are investing your time at the right or wrong company for you.

Fourth, and finally, can you picture yourself at your company in a year?

We use that time frame because that’s how long it usually takes to find a new, better job once you decide to move on. So peer, as best you can, into the future, and predict where you’ll be in the organization, what work you’ll be doing, whom you will be managing and who will be managing you. If that scenario strikes you with anything short of excitement, then your runway is too short. Or, put another way, you’re just about to stay too long.

To be clear: We’re not suggesting people quit at the first inkling of discontent. No matter where you work, at some point youwill have to endure difficult times, and even a deadly dull assignment, to survive a crisis or move up.

But, it makes little sense to stay on at a company simply because of inertia. Unlock your door and get out.

Write to Jack & Suzy

Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning Campaign readers can email them questions at Please include your name, occupation and city.

Only select questions will be answered.

©2007/by nyt syndicate