David Opton, the 59-year-old founder and executive director of Exec-U-Net Inc., a Norwalk, Connecticut-based organization that hosts networking events for high achievers, reports that one of the hottest topics of conversation among his organization's 5,000-plus members is this: How do you know when it's time to move on?
No single answer works for everyone. But drawing on countless conversations with Exec-U-Net's members and on his 14 years of experience as personnel director at Xerox, Opton has identified four signs that you're running on fumes.
You've lowered your standards.
"Leaders set standards that others are expected to meet. But the standards we set for ourselves should be considerably higher. Once you allow yourself to turn in work that's just good enough to get the job done, you've let your standards slip. And when you compromise your internal standards, your self-esteem will plummet."
Action Plan: "Look within your organization: Perhaps you were brought in to do strategic work, but you spend most of your time dealing with operational problems. And look within yourself: Maybe you've done this kind of work before, and it doesn't challenge you anymore. Then identify the types of projects that will let you refuel. You might want to volunteer for assignments outside your department. But if you can't figure out a way to incorporate such career catalysts into your job, it's time to start meeting with headhunters."
You're losing your self-esteem.
"A good leader knows that praising good work nourishes people's self-esteem. And if you don't get recognition, you'll soon start wondering whether you're out of step."
Action Plan: "If you have a perceptive boss, talk to him. But don't complain. Make it clear that you're seeking his counsel. Ask for his take on specific elements of your work project. You'll either discover that he thinks that things are going well - or you'll get the kind of input that will put you back on track.
"If talking with your boss doesn't help, talk with a trusted peer - or with someone who's worked with your boss in the past. Try to decode your boss's leadership style: He might be the type who 'recognizes' people only when there's a problem. Silence might be high praise from this guy.
"If all else fails, you'll have to decide whether to stick with an unresponsive boss or to jump to another organization. But don't forget that a less-than-ideal boss is sometimes a problem that solves itself: Even a boss doesn't last forever."
You're losing respect for your company.
"Motivated people are proud of their company. If, when you tell others what you do, you neglect to tell them which company you do it for, that's a bad sign. It means that your organization's ideals have changed - maybe because of competitive pressures. Or maybe those ideals were never really there to begin with."
Action Plan: "The best thing you can do is to find an employer that shares your values. Don't pretend that you have good feelings for your company. None of us is that good an actor, and you can't play that role forever. You'll become an observer instead of a problem solver, and you'll be less likely to offer constructive criticism - because you'll be trying to hide your true feelings."
You're simply trying to survive.
"Say that your company is rapidly losing market share, or that it's about to be acquired. Maybe you think that you might be terminated - and you respond by trying to lie low. Just 'hanging in there' seems to be the best-case scenario."
Action Plan: "Standing in the shadows, hoping that you won't get noticed, is slow suicide. Open your eyes and look for signals that your company might be in serious trouble: Does the bulk of its business come from Asia? Have orders been down for two quarters in a row? If so, don't wait to see how things shake out. The best time to look for a job is when you still have one."
Coordinates: David Opton, firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared in the October 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.