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How to Know When To Leave Your Job

Stay too long or leave too soon and you might regret it. Here’s how to tell when it’s time to go.

How to Know When To Leave Your Job
[Photo: Flickr user Victor]

Most of us have done it—stayed in a job so long we started getting complacent, or worse. Then there’s the reverse problem—leaving a job too early and ending up with something that isn’t what we hoped for.

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Knowing when to leave your job is a tricky business. I often tell my clients: “Before you jump out of one boat, you’d better make sure the other one floats.” Sometimes opportunities seem like a great fit at first, but when you start spotting leaks you’re already standing on deck with the water pooling swiftly around your ankles.

Here are four ways to know when a move you’re considering is the right one to make at the right time:

You’ve Done All You Can Do

Some people try to fight the fact that it’s time to move on and hang on to jobs they’ve outgrown. A lot of people don’t like to give up what they’ve got, whether it’s a high-profile position, a comfortable paycheck, or even just a low-stress job. The bottom line is if you’re no longer growing or helping your company grow, it’s time to go. When growth halts, everyone suffers.

I was head football coach at Boise State University (BSU) from 1987 to 1992. During that time we had five straight winning seasons and went to the national semifinals. But in the sixth year, we dropped a few notches and had a 5-6 season. After seeing the results, I realized I’d taken the team as far as I could, and I knew it was time for a change for my own sake, too.

Your Values Don’t Align

No matter how educated, talented, or successful you are, the way you treat people tells all—integrity is everything. If you can’t go home at the end of the day proud of the decisions you’ve made at work, it’s time to consider a move. An organization’s values come from the top, and chances are if the company culture doesn’t square with your values now, it probably never will.

I once coached a high-level manager who struggled with his company’s ethics. He wanted to be a loyal employee and even took positions in two different states in an effort to make the fit work. He was troubled by how employees were treated in an environment where the bottom line was the management’s main concern. Despite sharing his concerns with superiors, no changes seemed to be on the horizon. He wound up resigning from two very lucrative positions, but that turned out to be the right move because his next job was with a company that shared his values.

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Your Mentors Support Your Decision

There’s hardly a better time to rely on your professional mentors than when it comes to deciding whether to stay or go. An experienced mentor can help you track down new opportunities and may be able to see things you’re missing, especially if you’re captivated by a tempting position. Mentors can help ask the tough questions and help you sort out the emotions you’re experiencing.

A man named Jim Mora was one of my early mentors. Jim was on the coaching staff at the University of Colorado in 1969 when I was an assistant coach. I was getting antsy about getting a better job and making more money, so I interviewed for a head coach position at a high school in Littleton, Colorado. I got the job and told Jim I planned to accept it, and he said, “I thought you wanted to be a college coach. Why are you taking that job?” He was able to see my blind spot right away yet understood why I was considering the offer. I declined the job and stayed another season. That decision launched me into the college coaching realm and paved the way for nearly 30 years of college coaching success.

You Aren’t Making The Jump For Money Or Pride

Don’t get me wrong, better compensation and prestige can be great rewards, but if they’re they should never be the only reasons for making a move. Ultimately, you’ll know in your gut when it’s time to leave. Sometimes people are in a hurry to get to the next rung, thinking that it will bring them higher visibility or that it’s the only upward step to take. But there are so many other factors to weigh, even if they’re harder to see.

After my time at BSU, two colleagues there left to coach at larger schools in what looked like, in both cases, better, higher-profile opportunities. But after a while, both wound up getting fired. Today, they’d probably agree they should have stayed longer at BSU because their second boats didn’t float after all.

The Move Is Tied To Your Career Goals

When you lose your passion at a job, moving to another position can reignite it. But you never want to make a move out of desperation, which almost never has the long-term results you want. Keep your eye on your ultimate career goals and only consider positions that will help you reach them.

As head coach at BSU, I hired a number of young coaches. One such coach was Jim Zorn. He ended up becoming the head coach of the Washington Redskins. When I interviewed him, I remember asking what his ultimate professional goal was. He said without hesitation that he wanted to be a head coach in the NFL. This was his first coaching job at the time, though, and he was a long way from reaching it, but he made career decisions that kept him advancing in that direction.

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The truth is there’s no fail-proof way to know when it’s time for a career move, but if you keep these factors in sight as you weigh your options, you’ll stand a better chance of making the right move at the right time.

Skip Hall is a recruiting specialist, senior executive coach and speaker. For 40 years, he has coached the “Doctrine of Excellence,” a set of principles that result in recruiting and retaining great teams and achieving superior results in sports, business, and life.

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