The art of jumping ship

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I started a new job last week and was talking to my good friend Tim O’Neil about the where’s and why’s.  He’s happy in his current position but suggested I write a follow-up to my article on what to look for in a new company addressing when to start looking for that company.  After thinking it over, I thought it would make for an interesting conversation – so please feel free to add your $0.02 in the comments!

One of the hardest professional decisions is when to look for new opportunities.  Taking a new job is a risk after all!  The thing is, job security is a myth – it simply does not exist any more.  Layoffs are a normal part of business and startups die almost as fast as new ones are born.  No one is going to stay at the same company their entire career.   On the other hand, Silicon Valley is one of the only labor markets where demand significantly outstrips the available supply (thanks in large part to the abysmal failure of American schools to turn out the engineers needed to power our tech industries).  That puts talented workers in a uniquely strong position.  Millions of Americans who are struggling to stay afloat would be thrilled to have the opportunity we have.

The solution is to start treating your working hours like a stock portfolio – if you’re not getting the ROI you need it may be time to make a change.  Here are a few KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) for that portfolio:

Is there room to learn and/or advance in your current position?
There’s an old cliche that if you’re not learning you’re dead. While a bit morbid, it’s also true. If you are not learning and growing your skill set you’re wasting your time. That part is on the employee at least as much as the employer.  But an employer who fails to acknowledge and support the efforts of employees to better themselves and advance inside the company creates a situation where the best and brightest have to either leave or stagnate.

This failure of leadership is fundamentally a failure to utilize available resources.  If management lacks the mental agility to let employees pivot, grow, and advance within the company they probably also lack the agility to spot opportunities to grow the company itself. Every successful startup pivots and changes as it carves out a niche. So do its employees.

Is compensation and advancement clearly tied to performance?
If you’ve been at your job more than 6 months and haven’t had a performance review there’s a problem.  Demand clear goals and metrics, offer some of your own if they aren’t forthcoming, and work your ass off to move the needle once you have those metrics.  Best case scenario you get the promotion.  Worst case scenario, the people you’re in the trenches with recognize that you’re someone they can depend on and write you great recommendations on Linkedin when you find a new employer that appreciates you.

Are people afraid to acknowledge bad news?
Sometimes you have to tell the boss things that s/he doesn’t want to hear. Now of course it’s best if one can accompany that bad news by a plan or at least a proposal for how to fix things (be the person who solves problems, not the one who complains!), but one way or another sometimes bad things happen and someone has to own up. The temptation to downplay problems and challenges or spin them as successes is incredibly dangerous.  Failure to acknowledge a setback and adjust to the new reality is often at least as damaging as the initial setback.

Does leadership drink their own koolaid?
Every company has a narrative about how innovative and revolutionary they are, and that’s fine. The trouble is when people fail to acknowledge that everyone – including their competitors – is constantly innovating.  Just because your product was the best last year doesn’t mean it still is; and if you can’t even acknowledge a competitor’s gains you can’t counter them.

Many people go through life with blinders on hearing only what they expect to hear and cherry-picking evidence to support their biases – regardless of objective reality. It’s a dysfunctional and deeply stupid approach.  Don’t do it and don’t work for people who do.

Is the work genuinely interesting and challenging?
Even for someone who would ultimately rather be fishing, it’s possible to find satisfaction doing a job that is challenging, engaging, and where your unique skills add real value.  Besides, we’re living in the future here people –  if you feel like a robot at work it probably won’t be long until a robot or an algorithm is doing your job.  Which makes now a great time to try something new.

Would you buy this stock?
As Tim pointed out to me “Venture Capitalists (VC’s) invest their money in startups and can diversify their risk. Guys like us invest our time and talent, which means we have to be more choosy” It’s an apt comparison. I think the most devastating thing a person can say in an exit interview is that given their experience and everything they know, they are not going to exercise their stock options. And if you wouldn’t invest your money in the company stock, why would you invest your time?

Is this an opportunity too big to pass up?
It doesn’t happen often but occasionally there’s an opp that’s just too big to pass up.  Maybe that’s a big raise, but just as often it’s a chance to learn and grow or to contribute to something unique.  Again, the analogy of working hours as an investment portfolio is apt.  I wish I’d bought Apple stock back when they were doomed in the late 90’s.  I also wish I’d taken the Air B&B recruiter up on their offer a year before they blew up.  There’s no point regretting the missed opportunity, but it’s a good object lesson.  Sometimes it really is worth taking a risk to get in on something big.

This is bigger than just dollars and cents, we only get one life. Maybe you’ll die in your bed surrounded by loved ones at the ripe old age of 120. Maybe you’ll get hit by a bus on the way home from work tomorrow. Either way, life is far too short and far too precious to squander the majority of your waking hours on a job that isn’t rewarding and where you aren’t being recognized.*  Moving might require retraining and always involves some amount of risk, but without risk there is no reward.

Can you think of an example where you left a job that failed one or more of these criteria?  Or maybe a time when you stayed and wished you hadn’t?  What else would you add to the list?

*I’m going to assume that you, dear reader, are awesome and deserve to advance.  If not, you should probably go do something about that.