The longer you stay at a company, the harder it can be to see that it’s time to leave–especially if your long-term goal is to wind up in a leadership position. After all, knowing the ropes, and which colleagues take milk in their coffee, can feel comforting. As a result, you may stick around for the wrong reasons, long after you’ve determined you need a new challenge–and that chances of getting one by staying put are next to zero.
The easiest way to get unstuck and forge your own path into a leadership role–be it in- or outside your company–is to ask yourself these four questions.
1. Am I Still A Solid Fit?
Corporate cultures are rarely static. They can change fast anytime mergers, leadership transitions, turnarounds, business-model changes, or industry disruption force an organization to realign. These shifts can leave the company unrecognizable to longtime employees, who might start to feel like they no longer fit.
There are at least two factors to consider here: When your defining skills and talents are no longer valued, and when your ideas and aspirations no longer sync up with the organization’s. In either case, it’s a signal that you may need to reposition yourself in order to work your way toward a C-level role.
2. Am I About To Be Passed Over?
Many people start looking for new opportunities after failing to land a job they really want. Say you’ve spent a decade or more rising up in an organization, and you’re parked a level or two away from the top team. Then a C-suite succession opportunity presents itself and you make it onto the shortlist. Ultimately, though, you aren’t the one chosen. Now you have a choice to make: stay or go?
I watched this unfold up close when I was leading executive talent development at Cisco, and Chuck Robbins succeeded John Chambers as CEO in 2015. In the wake of the transition, we lost several top executives, not because they lacked talent (they were high performers who had been considered for the CEO role) but because they felt they needed to move on to have a shot at a top spot somewhere else. The fact that they came so close at Cisco was a wake-up call: They were ready for bigger things.
3. How Fast Is My Career Clock Ticking?
Even if you aren’t passed over for a leadership role, you may find yourself worrying about your career timeline: How close are you to achieving your next objective, and are you being offered the assignments that will help you grow and develop?
One executive I know runs an $8 billion business unit in the telecom sector. He could be the CEO someday, and everyone around him knows it. But he simply doesn’t want to be the chief executive at the company where he currently works. He knows it will take too long, and he’s not willing to wait. Instead, he’s working toward joining a smaller, more entrepreneurial organization where he can move up much faster along a more predictable path. If you’re ready for something bigger, but there’s no opportunity where you are–or you’re not first or second in line–it may be a signal that the time is right to look elsewhere.
Other timing issues come into play as well: Is your organization in questionable health? Is it being acquired? Is your industry failing to transform fast enough? Situations like this might mean it’s time to carve an alternative path to the top.
4. What’s My Next Growth Opportunity?
It’s not uncommon for an executive to leave a longtime leadership position at a large organization for a C-suite role at a smaller firm. The career advancement can be difficult to resist. But there’s more to this than the status of a top spot. Most of us need to feel challenged. If you’re no longer learning, chances are you need to start looking for your next growth opportunity, either internally or externally. That might even mean a lateral move; sometimes growth is more about experience than enhancing a job title, especially if you know the skills you’ll develop will help you move up further down the line.
It’s likely that no one thing–growth, timing, learning–will be the factor that compels you to start planning a new career path when your route to the C-suite feels blocked. It’s always a combination of factors. But with a little self-reflection, these questions can help you weigh the risks of a move and consider options you might not have thought about otherwise.
Cassandra Frangos is the author of Crack the C-Suite Code: How Successful Leaders Make It to the Top and is a consultant at Spencer Stuart, where she focuses on collaborating with Fortune 500 leadership teams on executive assessments, succession planning, leadership development, and top team effectiveness.