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Lessons Learned

How Working At The Same Company For 34 Years Made Me A Better CEO

Current trends aside, there are some lessons you can't learn from constant job hopping.

How Working At The Same Company For 34 Years Made Me A Better CEO
[Photo: DW labs Incorporated via Shutterstock]

When I was a freshman in college, I took a job as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble during my college’s winter field-work term. My friends were taking unpaid internships in theater or marine biology, but I needed the cash—something that wouldn't surprise most undergrads today.

This part, however, might: I was still working at the company 34 years later. All that time spent at a single employer taught me some crucial lessons that served me well when I finally took the leap and joined an ed-tech company, Flat World Education, where I'm now CEO.

As millennials have entered the workforce over the past decade, we've seen story after story chronicling their job-hopping tendencies, the decline of the traditional corporate ladder, and the emergence of the gig economy. A recent Deloitte survey noted that only 16% of millennials see themselves with their current employer a decade from now. In 2012, Fast Company wrote about the "four-year career"; by 2016, it was down to three.

Some claim this shift is a myth (younger workers have always switched jobs more frequently); others ascribe it to everything from apathy and disloyalty to ambition and entrepreneurialism. They’ve bemoaned the cost of training for companies and celebrated younger workers' supposed impatience for paying their dues or settling for unfulfilling jobs. Whatever the reason, the traditional stigma toward frequent job hopping is fast declining.

It's true that changing jobs regularly has its advantages, particularly in terms of gaining a broad perspective, acquiring new skills, building a network, and developing comfort with risk taking.

But it isn't true that those things are impossible when you stay at one employer. With the right company and the right internal opportunities, you can find personal and professional growth that you simply can't by job hopping. Here are three of those lessons that have served me well in my later career, especially as a CEO.

1. Some Of The Biggest Changes Play Out Slowly

Today, many of us are measured by nearly instantaneous quantitative metrics. With simple tools and dashboards, you can see if your subject lines get people to open your newsletters, or you can evaluate the effectiveness of a pricing change and adjust your approach right away.

But there will always be business moves that take longer to play out: Decisions as seemingly straightforward as a change to a vacation policy or as far-reaching as a major acquisition; ventures and partnerships that may seem like failures at first, only to have benefits emerge over time—or vice versa. Some decisions may have surprising consequences, for better or worse, that aren't apparent immediately.

Seeing—and learning to live with—the long-term repercussions of those choices helps you make them more wisely. If you stay at the same organization for years or even decades, you see the long-tail impact of every decision you make. You’ll see when jobs are lost when a strategy goes sour, but also witness how a small initiative grows and ends up as a high-impact success down the line. With these insights, you're much less likely to make the same mistakes twice.

2. Every Company Evolves, Sometimes Dramatically

One major misconception about working at the same company for a long time is that you don’t get the injections of energy that come from a new environment. But the truth is that staying at one company isn’t necessarily static—or even stable.

When I joined Barnes & Noble in 1984, it was a completely different company from what it is today. Over my decades-long tenure, the part of the business in which I was immersed for much of my career, Barnes & Noble College, separated into its own privately held company; grew significantly; expanded into new course material formats like textbook rentals; was acquired by Barnes & Noble, Inc.; established and grew a formidable digital presence; and then, finally, was spun off as its own public company.

Of course, you can experience different sizes and shapes of businesses by moving between companies. But there’s something special about seeing firsthand how a business evolves and morphs into different incarnations. That perspective is particularly valuable if you later join a developing company—you’ll be the veteran who has seen a business undergo not just a single pivot, but a long series of successful transformations.

3. Your Own Initiative Matters Most

While it might seem as though staying at the same company would make it more difficult to forge your own distinct career path, over my time at Barnes & Noble, I was able to make unconventional choices and take on responsibilities by building up credibility with my colleagues.

I moved around the country for different roles, explored new areas, and eventually led Barnes & Noble College’s course materials and digital business, launching innovative programs and applications—a far cry from where I started on the sales floor.

Ultimately, and no matter what your own trajectory looks like, building a successful career is more about finding the right opportunities at the right time than about any hard and fast rules for getting ahead. I had an extremely rewarding work experience at Barnes & Noble, but was also thrilled to try something totally new at Flat World when I finally made the switch.

From my perspective, it's most important to find the right balance between investing your time in an organization and investing in your individual growth. By focusing on those experiences that let you learn and make an impact, you’ll continuously encounter challenges that get you out of bed in the morning—even if it's at the same employer—for the next 30 years.

Jade Roth is the CEO of Flat World Education, an ed-tech company focused on personalized digital learning content, technology, and services.

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