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How to know when it’s time to stay: considerations for early-career professionals

By Lydia Benge Cloeter, Solution Partner – Crew

A woman in a denim jacket stands across the street from white stone rowhouses with a blue door and a red door with balconies above that have greenery

At a recent happy hour, I was chatting with a VP who leads a technology team at a Fortune 500 client of ours. We were discussing early-career employees and the stereotypes recent graduates sometimes (fairly or unfairly) get in the workplace – they have “shiny object syndrome,” thinking they deserve more responsibility and glamorous, strategic work; they’re always ready to jump to a new opportunity; they have no patience for hard work and cutting one’s teeth. He admitted he felt these frustrations with retention issues in his organization and lamented that young people are so hungry for opportunity, they have no loyalty or tolerance to grind it out and grow. He also admitted that at the beginning of his career, he worked at a large bank, and left abruptly for a start-up opportunity which then took off and greatly changed the trajectory of his career for the better – precisely because he took that risk and jumped to a new opportunity.

In discussing further, we agreed that one should be willing to move roles for a great opportunity, but that one needed to be intentional about evaluating moves and shouldn’t always see movement and change as the right step or synonymous with progress. We agreed that it can be “easy” to know when to take a leap, but it may be harder to know when to stay.

Especially in the beginning of a career, there is no shortage of advice on how to “maximize your twenties” and set yourself up for whatever it is you’re seeking – leadership, higher salaries, happiness at work, or more responsibility. This comes from social media, from influencers, from your peers, and from the universe at large, all with a slightly different “you should” approach. “You should never stay in a job that doesn’t make you feel alive!” “You should ask for more money and get what you deserve!” “You should never have to settle for a bad manager!” “You should work in a field where you’re making the world better!” “You should be your own boss!” “A company isn’t loyal to you, so you should first and foremost be loyal to yourself!”

It can be “easy” to know when to take a leap, but it may be harder to know when to stay.

I’m not arguing that any of these is incorrect, but through years spent interviewing folks categorized as “early career,” I gained perspective from job seekers; I learned a lot about their disappointments in their current roles, what was lacking, and what they were hoping for. Some job seekers were miserable – overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid – but some liked their jobs and were simply afraid of missing out on a better opportunity. Their perspectives allowed me to consider my own career differently – when and why I should make a move and when and why I shouldn’t – and this blog post serves as an outlet to pass along some of that perspective today. The broad message is that, especially in the beginning years of your career, you have a lot to consider: opportunity vs, loyalty, and instant gratification vs. the long game.

Especially at the beginning of your career, it can be challenging to know when to push and when to sit tight; when to seek a new opportunity and when to make the most of the situation you’re in. It’s counter to popular advice, but here are a few gut checks for how to know when to stay.

Consideration 1: What are your priorities?

First, and most importantly, figure out your priorities when it comes to your job – not your career, but your day-to-day, your immediate, your job. I really mean it – write them down and rank them. You shouldn’t have more than four or five to make sure you really choose what matters to you. Mine are (in no order here, but I do have them ranked): belief in the work I am doing, flexibility for my life outside of work, financial compensation, and enjoying the people I work with. Based on the phase of life I am in, some are more important than others, so feel free to revisit annually to shuffle, add, or subtract priorities. When you consider a new opportunity, map it out to how it upholds or compromises these priorities. Maybe a shiny offer is a lot more money, but at the cost of work-life balance; stacking the role against your priorities can help guide your decision-making. What is important for you to feel when you think about your job? What boxes are already being checked?

Consideration 2: What untapped potential remains here?

For ambitious young professionals, being motivated to grow can be tough to reconcile with learning where you are. For people who want to grow, there may be employers where progression seems impossible: your manager isn’t leaving anytime soon and that’s the only role you could move into. Your department is budget-constrained and someone else has more tenure. Your organization is small, and you’ll need to “progress in place.” First, I urge you to think about if this is truly a problem; a great way to do that is to revisit those priorities. Are you still learning? Are you still growing? If so, it may be a better idea to make the most of this role so you’re better prepared before you go elsewhere. Furthermore, even if you can’t see a job you’d like to move into in this organization, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; the best roles I have had in my career, including the one I am in now, didn’t exist before I held it. New projects, teams, or opportunities may be just around the corner, and how to be best prepared to take them leads me to Consideration 3.

Consideration 3: Are you feeling underutilized?  You don’t need to leave to make change and experience growth.

When it comes to your career, please know you are in the driver’s seat. This is not only with regard to switching jobs – though that is certainly true – but you are the only person who is able to affect the role you’re in now. Not seeing enough opportunity for yourself? How can you create it? I’ve been surprised to learn how much of a career feels like a land grab – those who want to take it can. I’ve seen young workers averse to taking on “entry-level” tasks at the risk of not being taken seriously or because it’s boring, and I offer a different perspective – it’s all a place to learn and build trust. Knock the easy tasks out of the park and prove your dependability. When a new opportunity arises later, you’ll be top of mind given your performance.

I’ll elaborate with an example: a close friend of mine has an early-career associate that I’ll call Kevin who reports to her. Kevin laments the fact that he doesn’t get more “strategic” work. Because Kevin feels his work is beneath him and that he’s capable of more, he is checked out and puts in minimal effort at the work he does have. My friend, Kevin’s leader, would love to give him work he’s more interested in, but doesn’t trust his work quality given his efforts on the “easy” stuff. She won’t add him to weightier work until the basic tasks are done well. They are trapped in a cycle of mutual frustration!  

Can you volunteer to take notes in a meeting and thus become the person who knows more about what happens between departments? Volunteering for more to shape your own role comes at a price – risk, more work, discomfort – but it can pay off greatly. Before you write off your role, consider where you can raise your hand, take on more, and shape the role you’re in to become something you want it to be.

Not seeing enough opportunity for yourself? How can you create it? I’ve been surprised to learn how much of a career feels like a land grab – those who want to take it can.

Ultimately, a blog post can’t tell you whether it’s time to look for a new role or to stick it out – your circumstances are unique to you. But in the age of essentially never-ending social media, it’s easy to feel discontent that your life isn’t as cool as other people’s, to feel slowed or stuck compared to your friends, and to want to chase a better title, more money, or more responsibility. Before you do, remember there are many benefits to tenure in an organization: a strong network, subject matter expertise, confidence in your decision-making abilities, and more. There are times to take a chance on something new and there are times to bide your time, and before abandoning ship, I encourage you to consider those day-to-day priorities, look at the path ahead of you, and ask if you’re doing all you can to maximize the role you’re in. Of course, most of us will work in many places during our careers, but I urge you to be intentional about your own journey, which is one of the greatest ways you can be looking out for and loyal to yourself.

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