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Know When To Fold ‘em
Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [firstname.lastname@example.org]
all start out in new jobs with great anticipation and excitement, hoping
that the new position will be the long-term opportunity that will
achieve our highest desires and lead to ever-increasing opportunities
for growth, contribution, and perhaps even promotion.
Many people do indeed find their new position to provide everything or
at least much of what they’re looking for, and feel content. However,
for others the initial glow and promise wears off sooner or later, and
disappointment grows and discontentment and frustration begins to set
in. It is often a difficult task to fairly evaluate whether the better
option is continuing with what you know, which has become an
increasingly frustrating job, or looking elsewhere for new opportunities
that better match you and your goals in life. There is an old Kenny
Rogers song, “The
Gambler”, with the refrain, “You got to know when to
hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to
run.” For most jobs, this refrain is surprisingly applicable.
How do you determine when you’ve been dealt a bad hand or worse? When
you reach a point of sufficient discontentment, this is something that
you need to give careful thought.
I’ve directly experienced all four portions of this refrain across my
career and have some thoughts about each. Let’s take each portion of
the refrain and expand on what they can mean in a workplace environment:
• Know when to hold ‘em: When your job is
satisfying and you feel comfortable and content in your work and
workplace, this is typically a time to “hold ‘em”; that is, to
hold on to what you’ve got. Hopefully this is the case for most people,
where they’re relatively happy with their work, their workplace friends,
their managers, and their company. There will always be times of
frustration in any job, but when such times are the exception and not
the rule this is generally a situation where it makes sense to “hold
em” and enjoy your time in such a position.
In my case, I worked almost twenty years at AT&T Bell Labs, during its
glory years, and until my last few years there, when the company as a
whole was undergoing significant turmoil, it was a great and challenging
work environment. It was only toward the end of my time there that
things began to change enough to move me into the “fold ‘em”
• Know when to fold ‘em: When the percentage of
frustration begins to exceed that of satisfaction, when you start to
reach a significant point of discontentment, it may be time to begin to
consider whether it’s time to “fold ‘em”. Typically such
discontentment builds slowly over time and it is not a single event that
pushes you over the edge. Instead it is a growing level of
dissatisfaction that forces you to seriously evaluate whether this is
temporary or permanent, and whether it’s time to look around elsewhere
for better opportunities. This generally leads to updating your resume,
signing up with some jobs boards, possibly contacting some recruiters,
and seeing what other opportunities are out there. In the meantime, you
keep plugging away at your job giving it your all until you decide the
time is right. Drastic immediate action that may leave you without a
job or income is something that few can afford, so it makes sense to
have a new place to land before leaving your present position.
In my case, such discontent and dissatisfaction was what led me to leave
Bell Labs after almost 20 years and to leave a senior position at
another company after about 4 years. I didn’t hate these jobs, but they
were no longer satisfying. It was time to “fold ‘em”.
• Know when to walk away: Sometimes you’re in a
position that is mostly satisfying, although becoming less so, when
things happen that just hit you as wrong and make you rethink what
you’re doing with your career and your life. This could be layoffs of
really good people that, while you understand the economics the company
may be facing, the choices made just don’t make sense. This could be
management decisions regarding the company’s strategy or tactics that
simply don’t make sense to you or others around you and make you
question the company’s future. This could be a corporate decision to
acquire another company or to be acquired by another company that just
doesn’t make logical sense. This could be changes to the management
team that don’t make sense knowing the people leaving and entering
critical positions. It can be many things that make you question the
company’s future and where you’re not willing to bet your future on what
you see as bad decisions being made. You may decide to hang around and
see how things develop, but you seriously question the likely outcome.
At this point, you begin to think that it may be time to “walk away”.
So you immediately update your resume and contact friends,
acquaintances, recruiters, or others you may have dealt with to see what
opportunities may be out there in the near term, recognizing that you
are likely to accept a good opportunity that you find.
It may also be time to “walk away” when you sense that things
just aren’t going anywhere for you in your current position, where it’s
becoming increasingly clear that you aren’t valued in the organization,
and opportunities for advancement, recognition, or meaningful pay
increases are unlikely.
In my case, this occurred in a position where it was becoming
increasingly clear that my boss and I simply didn’t see eye-to-eye on
virtually anything. I questioned his judgment and he questioned mine.
It was clear that things were not about to improve, and it was time to
look elsewhere; time to “walk away”.
• Know when to run: When you dread going to your
job every day to the point where you feel your physical or mental health
is at risk if you stay even one more day, then it is time “to run”,
whether you have another job to run to or not. This may include
situations where you have huge differences with the way management is
running the company or where you’ve lost all respect for them and what
they are attempting to force you or your people to do. It may include
instances where you believe illegal, immoral, unethical, or other
untenable behavior is taking place that you simply can’t live with. You
may not be able to change the direction or the behavior, but you can
change your participation in it by getting out yourself. In such
situations, it’s time “to run” as quickly as possible.
In my case, it was the former of the two examples above. The personal
stress in the job caused by senior management decisions and directions
and demands on organization changes to my department that I simply
couldn’t live with was impacting my physical health, and since I knew I
couldn’t eliminate the stress from the job, I decided my only choice was
to leave the job almost immediately; thus I chose “to run”.
Despite not having another position to go to, it was one of the best
choices I’ve ever made.
• Other situations: Of course you will likely also
experience situations where the decision to leave a position isn’t
yours, for a variety of reasons. You may get caught up in layoffs (or
downsizing’s, reductions in force, right sizing’s, or whatever euphemism
is in vogue at the time). Your company may be acquired and you’re not
part of that acquisition. Your company may move or suddenly close
down. Such situations are generally outside of your control, but you
should be prepared for such likelihoods. The economics of companies is
often uncertain, and such actions may seem to come out of the blue. You
should try to stay aware of your company’s financial and market health
to identify such possibilities before they occur. Stay abreast of the
company scuttlebutt without becoming too embroiled in it. You should
always keep your resume current, maintain contacts with others, and stay
current with suitable opportunities in your area. You should actively
network via local organizations, business social networking (e.g.
LinkedIn), etc., even when you’re in a “hold ‘em” situation.
With the changing economy and the higher degrees of corporate and market
uncertainties, many companies are reluctant to hire new full-time
employees, or are shedding current ones. More opportunities may exist
for “free agents” who will serve as a new form of “migrant
workers with needed specialized knowledge” for companies with
near-term (or longer) needs. Exploring such opportunities yourself may
be a path to consider, but recognize it is one with much uncertainty as
Leaving a current job can be a wrenching decision, and isn’t one you
should take lightly. Evaluating your current situation so that you can
carefully and logically assess what to do and map out how best to
proceed can make such a critical decision easier. The Gambler’s
refrain can help you categorize and determine what decision makes the
most sense for you.
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