Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Know When To Fold 'em

We 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” category.

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 decisions 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 well.

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.


  1. Tom,

    Thanks for another excellent article. When thinking about changing jobs I believe it is important to distinguish between difficulties that are limited to the present job—situations that can improve if I move to another firm—and broader based difficulties that may extend throughout an industry, work-type, or even the economy. For example, if I simply don’t like working indoors 9-5, or I don’t like working alone, or I don’t like a sales position, or don’t like working in health care then changing jobs to increase my satisfaction will require changing the basic structure of how I work, not just going to another firm in the same industry. Also, as you point out, it is essential to differentiate between a temporarily bad situation and a long-term situation in making this decision. It is good to ask: “How long will I have to endure this before it gets better?”

  2. To Simply Curious,

    Thanks for your kind comments. The points you raise are good ones. I was primarily addressing difficulties limited to the present job. However, people may realize that they want to move away entirely from their current type of job, and such changes require even more reflection and planning before giving up a current job for one in an entirely different area. At some point it may still be time "to run", but planning should be done well before reaching that point if at all possible.

    Thanks - Tom


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