Job-Hopping: Exercise with Caution

While employers are more tolerant of itinerant executives in the dot-com era, consider the potential pitfalls before making that next switch

As recently as five years ago, an executive who had hopped to three new jobs in less than 20 months would likely have ended up in career no-man's-land. But the rules have changed. Just ask Joseph Galli Jr., the newly appointed CEO and president of consumer-products company Newell Rubbermaid.

This time two years ago, Galli was holding down a top job at tool- and appliance maker Black & Decker in Towson, Md. He left and took a prestigious job: chief operating officer of Net pioneer But after only 13 months at Amazon's Seattle headquarters, Galli jumped again, to the CEO spot at Web B2B trailblazer VerticalNet in Horsham, Pa. From there, it was a relatively short hop on Jan. 8 to Freeport, Ill., and his new post at Rubbermaid.



  Galli is an extreme example of what might be called the itinerant executive, a new animal created by a vastly more mobile workplace where loyalty -- to both companies and employees -- is an increasingly rare commodity. Not long ago, an executive resume with four jobs in less than two years might have been considered a warning of instability. But as Galli is proving, times have changed to the point that at least top execs can get away with emulating the job-hopping habits of football coaches and star shortstops.

Executive recruiters -- the people who would profit most handsomely from a little more executive churn -- say unless it's unavoidable, copying Galli probably isn't the smartest career move. For most mortals, they contend, there still is such a thing as a "decent interval" for remaining at a company before moving on. Moreover, they say, candidates for upper-level jobs need to have stayed put long enough to be able to point to accomplishments. Galli's love 'em and leave 'em style "is pretty unusual," says Peter Felix, president of the Association of Executive Search Consultants. He adds, "I don't think anyone would expect this to be the norm."

It may never be, but at least some employers are showing a greater tolerance for executive job-hopping. A study last August by Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a human resources consulting company, found that in 1999 20% of 800 large companies had tapped a CEO from outside the company. In 1990, the figure was 11%. To Ira Kay, the Watson Wyatt director who carried out the study, the increase is an indication that more CEOs are on the move. One reason, he says, is greater-than-ever board scrutiny of executive performance. Another is that the wealth boom of recent years has made early retirement a more likely option.


  Other factors may be playing a role, too. One is a rational reaction to early '90s downsizings, when numerous managers, facing layoffs for the first time, began to replace corporate loyalty with the idea of taking charge of their own careers, Felix says. The allure of dot-coms, combined with a shortage of management talent, has played a part, too: Suddenly, it was O.K. to take a flier on becoming instantly rich, then boomerang back to an established Old Economy company.

Indeed, many job candidates may get more kudos than demerits for having headed a startup that foundered, some recruiters say. They assert that a lot of companies, especially in high technology, are eager to find candidates with the broad business experience gained from running a fledgling company. "If the business failed, that's O.K.," says Robert J. Lambert, who heads the Southern California practice of executive-search company Christian & Timbers. "I love interviewing these guys to find out what they learned."

In fact, executive recruiters often aren't surprised, or put off, when they see evidence of faltering on a candidate's resume. "Catch an IBMer on the second step after IBM" is a recruiting adage repeated by Alan S. Neely, managing director of the North America advanced-technology practice at executive recruiter Korn/Ferry International. Translation: Someone with long and solid experience at an established company may deliver less-than-stellar performance when suddenly deposited in a new environment. What's important is that candidates learn from experience -- and put that to work on the next job, Neely says.


  Still, it's probably a good idea to refrain from casual job-hopping. Older job seekers need to show evidence of having done serious time in at least one position, says Pam Lassiter, principal at Lassiter Consulting, a career-management company. "You need an anchor on your resume," she says. "If you're 40, and your whole career is a bunch of hops, that can add up on the negative side. A search person won't be impressed."

If an employee is itching to move on, what's the minimum decent interval? "Unless it was affecting their health, I'd say try to find a way to make it work for at least a year," says Lambert of Christian & Timbers.

With emphasis on "at least." Three years is more like it, says David B. Opton, CEO and founder of ExecuNet, a job-networking group for senior executives. The first year, execs learn. The second year, they put programs in place. The third year, they go live with the results and make the necessary improvements, he reasons. Neely, too, is skittish about a tenure of less than three years. Anything shorter, he says, allows a manager to "put in lovely programs -- and get out of there before they fall apart."


  In some cases, too short a stay can cost an executive money. Companies that grant large signing bonuses to top-level execs -- CEOs and CFOs -- often stipulate that they return all or part of the bonus if they leave too early, says Claude Johnston, a managing director of Pearl Meyer & Partners, an executive-compensation consulting firm.

One exception to the rules-of-thumb for tenure: Lassiter says if managers are in a position where they're being ethically compromised, they should leave ASAP.

After all, no job is worth a tarnished reputation.

By Pamela Mendels in New York

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