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 of the car. "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 over-stayed 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 could possibly 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 should go ahead and put it out there: Do you want to go to work every morning?
This is not a matter to be over-brained. 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 motions to pull a paycheck? 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 you will 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 fulfill 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'd like, given your chosen work-life balance? Does it offer enough upward mobility, given your level of ambition? There are no right or wrong answers to such questions, 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 you're spinning your wheels. 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 you will 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 and stay at a company because of inertia. Unlock your door and get out.