When It’s Time To Leave Your Job

Is it time to leave your job?

It doesn’t have to be like this.

One of my current clients is an Executive Director whose organization is on the cusp of major growth and change.

Does she want to lead and manage it going forward? She’s not sure.

So I ask her: If I took an Etch-A-Sketch and erased your organization, what would you do? Draw me a picture of what you want in your next role. Can it be found in this new and changing organization?

She responds: (1) I have no idea and (2) I really haven’t given it any thought.

This is a problem. For her and for her organization.

When is it time to leave your job? It’s not always so clear. And it’s not just as simple as “get out before you burn out.”

Here’s the story of why I left GLAAD and some advice for those ruminating on this topic.

WHY I LEFT GLAAD

After a good eight year run, I made a decision not to renew my contract, about 9 months before its expiration. There were three key reasons:

1) Family Ties. For me it was about my family. It was a growing feeling of irresponsibility to my partner and our kids. I could advocate for a cause and members of an entire marginalized community, but not for my own kids as they traveled the turbulent waters of middle and high school? This increasing feeling of shirking my responsibilities was impossible for me to ignore.

2) The future was down the hall. I’m not saying that I groomed a successor who took over for me when I left since an external candidate replaced me. I mean something else.

RELATED: HOW I SCREWED UP MY SUCCESSION PLAN AT GLAAD

I remember the meeting so vividly. As I was deciding, a staff member asked me to meet someone she thought was a rock star candidate for an open position on her team. The two of them sat in my office and we talked. He was a rock star. So was she. The conversation was engaging and I learned a lot from both of them.

And in that moment, it was clear that I was staring at the future and that not only could I pass the baton with them with confidence but I saw that I should.

3) No Unfinished Business. I did what I set out to do. I rebuilt an organization and developed programs and campaigns with real and substantive impact. And I believed two things: 1) A fresh set of eyes is very good for an organization and 2) I believed that the future strategy of GLAAD’s work might best be shaped and executed by someone more savvy than me about the future of the media business.

So that’s my story. What’s yours? What signals should you look for? How should you be thinking about your professional future?

IS IT TIME TO PLAN YOUR EXIT STRATEGY?

See where you come out on answers to the questions below.

1) Are you learning anything new? People stay in their jobs for a long time for one of two reasons. The right one: your job shifts, grows and changes. You stretch new muscles. I can describe the wrong one in a single word: inertia.

2) Did you recently hear yourself respond to a new idea with the phrase, “That’s not how we do it here?” Or the corollary: “We tried that seven years ago and it didn’t work.” Can’t imagine trying something brand new? Not a good sign. At all.

3) Does your passion for the work seem to trump the passion you have for your family? And it’s not fair if you ask this question only to yourself. Engage your family in this conversation. Are you are at a point where ‘saving the world’ seems more important than a school play, a family dinner, or even a not-so-important occasion? Maybe, just maybe, your family has had it with your job and you are not listening.

4) Are you worried about who will follow in your footsteps? Sorry but let’s be blunt here. That concern is simply an excuse for you to avoid grappling with the deeper issues — inertia and uncertainty about what is next. Take this worry off your list. Otherwise I guarantee you that you will overstay your welcome.

5) Are you totally burned out? I beg you. Don’t go down in the flames of burnout. Remember people are watching. These jobs need to be seen as doable so that high quality candidates will apply. Burn out and you will direct some anger at the organization you care about so deeply. And remember, burnout is self -imposed. Don’t you try going and blaming it on anyone else.

RELATED: MY BIGGEST PROFESSIONAL MISTAKE

6) Ask yourself the hardest question of all: Are you staying because you have no picture of what’s next? This is SO not a reason to stay because it is so about YOU and not what is in the best interest of the organization.

I am not encouraging you to leave your job before it’s time. But I am encouraging each of you who lead organizations to plan, to be honest, to build leadership within your organization and to create an outline of an exit strategy.

People are so damned thoughtful about job searches — applying for the right jobs that make the most sense.

Why can’t we all be more thoughtful about knowing when it’s time to go?

As a leader in your organization, you have championed and given blood, sweat, and definitely tears in the service of your mission. You need to consider your own tenure through that exact same lens.

WHAT NEXT?

First, if you know somebody else who is struggling with his job… who’s feeling burned out and isn’t sure if she wants to keep going… share this article. Maybe it can help.

And finally, if you haven’t already, subscribe to get more nonprofit leadership advice like this. You can click the link here. And thanks!

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Craig Coogan

    Another thoughtful and important post – what a gift to the non-profit community! I do think there is an additional issue that frames when to leave. The restructuring that the economy undertook in 2008-09 not only changed how so many of our charitable organizations are funded, but also the employment outlook and process dramatically changed. How highly skilled executive directors are placed and found has changed – as it has in many industries. It’s no longer quite as easy to find another gig to step into. (People with the right skills, contacts, and track record *should* be ok, but still – it’s a real issue.) This concern about the job market is not a reason to stay – but it is branch of inertia discussed in the post. It’s actually fear. I don’t think fear is healthy individually or organizationally, but it is a reality that drives when people choose to transition. This is where good relationships between ED’s and BoD chairs is vital. A mantra that has served me well in my (many) years of doing this work: how you come into and organization and how you go out of an organization is often more important than what happens in between. Of course what happens in between is the meal, and it’s important. Just can’t forget the hors d’ourves or dessert. Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful entry!

    • Craig. You raise a great point about the power and importance of your relationship with your board chair comes in. That partnership can re-energize, reduce the feeling of loneliness and your chair can be a thought partner with you in contending with possible burnout. And yes, you are right. Fear is a big piece of the puzzle. Maybe “inertia” isn’t quite the word. There may be a dose of “paralysis’ in it (a word that captures fear better than inertia). Lastly, reading your positive comments makes me want to get started on this week’s post in spite of all i have to do today. So thank YOU!

  • Gordon Steen

    Where is my helicopter? So if you are just an employee not a director, and you are still learning things, when should you leave?

    • Gordon. A few quick responses. If your boss continues to invest in your professional development, if the things you are learning are really moving the organization forward, if the organization demonstrates its appreciation and your family is not on your case about being “married to your job,” you’re probably not at the end of your rope. And of course someone might come along to recruit you for a dream job. That happens! Hope that was helpful.

  • Tommy D.

    Timely, Ms. Gary. Thanks.

    • Tommy D.

      Oops. Pardon the typo, Ms Garry.
      Great article, Joan.

      • Dear Tommy D. First, folks spell my name wrong with some frequency so no apology necessary. Secondly, I am assuming that a career transition may be in the offing for you and I’m glad that you found the article to be of value. Wishing you the best.