At long last, freedom: Knowing when to leave a job is a vital—but difficult—part of smart career management

Knowing when to leave a job is a vital—but difficult—part of smart career management. Here's how to tell

It didn't take marketing veteran Michele Erskine long to realize her new job as a vice-president at a small Toronto company wasn't a perfect fit. It had sure looked good on paper: she already knew the company's founders, the firm's entrepreneurial bent appealed to her and it seemed like she could really help the company grow. But sometime during her first few months on the job, Erskine could see things just weren't working out, and it was affecting the rest of her life. “Intuitively, there was some friction that was building that couldn't be resolved,” she says. “When your mindset just isn't employee-ish, it's hard to turn yourself around.”

Erskine had a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, but according to Watson Wyatt Worldwide's WorkCanada 2004/2005 survey, nearly half the Canadian workforce are much more definite about their desires–and would consider leaving their jobs today for a comparable one with another organization. Only 43% rate their company as a good place to work, down 12 percentage points since a similar survey in 2002. That's partly because the Canadian economy is humming along, so people feel better opportunities abound, says Graham Dodd, Canadian national practice director, human capital group, for Watson Wyatt. But it's also because employees are a little less engaged in their organizations than in the past, Dodd adds. They're looking for a higher degree of connection between themselves and their direct managers, as well as processes such as pay-to-performance linkages. When someone feels there's something better on the horizon or that they're not contributing to the company the way they would like, it's not long before they're either unhappy or they change jobs.

But if everyone followed through on impulses to leave, employers would experience near-constant turnover. Fortunately, most people still have very little idea about the best time to quit or what they should do next, says management consultant Randall Craig. He saw so much of that uncertainty in the business world that he wrote a book about it, Leaving the Mother Ship, published last year after Craig followed his own advice to change boats so he could spend more time with his three young children. That was something he just couldn't do as a senior vice-president of Sapiens Americas, an insurance-technology provider, who spent more than three weeks out of every four on the road. Everything about his job was great, except it no longer fit his lifestyle. “I had the best job in the world,” Craig says. “But at a certain point, despite all the pluses, it was more important that I spend time with my family.”

Having a career that doesn't quite mesh with your personal life is just one of the signs your job might not be right for you (see “Six reasons to split,” page 94). Figuring out that something is missing, however, is a self-realization process sorely lacking in most people's career decisions, Craig says. Recent graduates are often happy just to have a job in their chosen field, but there's no excuse for not having a career plan once you're in the working world. And yet most leave control of their careers in the hands of managers, human resources staff or friends–and often end up with jobs that aren't right for them.

“You might find yourself taking something that's short-term good, but longer-term bad,” Craig says. “It's very difficult sometimes to make that decision, because we all tend to rationalize.” Some decide the pay is too good to leave. Others think they owe the company a debt of gratitude. But if you're not exceeding your manager's expectations and moving the business forward, hanging around to collect a paycheque is a greater betrayal. Ultimately, such rationalizing will leave you unhappy, and it will show in your work–and outside the office, too.

In Erskine's case, the 18-year marketing veteran wanted to spend more time with her son, but she also felt a rift growing with her employers. She learned that while she likes the spirit of entrepreneurs, she doesn't like working for them. “In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to be at the helm,” Erskine says. “When you've got that mindset, it eats away at you when anything isn't done quite the way you'd want it to, which doesn't make you a great employee.”

Erskine was able to switch gears smoothly. Rather than storm off in a huff, she brought her concerns to her bosses, and together they came up with an exit plan that not only allowed her to take a couple of clients with her, but also included a strategy for dealing with other clients to avoid any negative ramifications. Erskine soon joined her brother Dave, who was busy putting together his own business plan for Tangency, a Toronto communications company. By all accounts, Erskine is much happier now. Her job has more flexible hours, allowing her more time to spend with her son. And she can pick and choose which opportunities to pursue, meaning she has more control over her life.

Taking control is exactly what everyone should do, says Craig. “You spend more time at your day job than anywhere else and you've got to enjoy it,” he says. Quitting isn't easy, but sometimes it's a necessity, says Ed Rychkun, author of the self-published How's Your AQ Today?: Corporations Stripped Naked, which satirizes business power structures. The pay, the perks and the power of a particular job may look good on the surface, but if you're not fitting in, doing things you don't really want to do, working for a group of draconian vice-presidents or an unreasonable board, you're the one who will pay in the long run.

“If there isn't some kind of sympathy for the people in the corporation, that's a big flag that it's time to go,” says Rychkun. He's developed a tongue-in-cheek checklist called AQ (asshole quotient) to help employees figure out where they are on the corporate ladder and what their working relationships should be like. The higher up the ladder you climb, the more you'll think others around you are jerks, giving you a high AQ. A junior salesperson new to a company, however, should have a low AQ. If she doesn't, she should think about leaving and starting fresh somewhere else.

On at least one occasion, Rychkun, who spent 30 years in technology at companies such as IBM, left a company when he realized he wasn't happy doing the things required to keep it focused on the bottom line. “There was a point at which I just simply had to get out of it,” Rychkun says. “You hope you don't meet that situation, but as you climb, it does get tougher and people's perception of you changes.”

Before you quit, figure out what direction you want your career to head. It's not necessary to have an exact final destination, but set a direction, take small steps–Craig calls them proxy goals–along it, and fill in the gaps in your resumé. Take a night course in that particular field, offer to work on projects outside your job scope but that you're interested in, or do some related part-time work for a community or charitable organization. In other words, test-drive your idea and constantly fine-tune your goals.

That exercise is useful even if you're not actively looking for another job, because it will prepare you for the right opportunity when it does come your way. After all, says Craig, “the drive that you bring to your job brings you success in your job. Let's just make sure you're driving in the right direction.”