How Long Is Too Long At One Job?

After the end of each day of class at Developing History Leaders @ SHA and after we had returned from dinner many of us gathered with cold beers in hand for an informal round table discussion (inevitably this gathering became known as Beer Circle). While the day time training with highly regarded professionals was immeasurably valuable, the evening round table discussion with peers had its own incalculable importance.

One evening we entered into a heated debate that soon had all of our wheels turning.

The discussion centered on these burning questions:

  • How long is too long at one job?
  • If you stay in one place for too long are you stunting your potential career growth?
  • Do people look at you as some sort of failure, with an inability to move and progress, if you stay with the same organization or office for too long? (and what is too long?)

That discussion and those questions continue to intrigue me. I’m not sure that there are right answers. However, as a person who is still facing down 20-30 years of work and who wants to be as personally successful as I can be while also making significant improvements at any organization for which I work, you can bet that these questions continue to bubble somewhere close to the surface of my mind.

A recent article on LinkedIn questioned whether Mary Barra, who has been at GM for 33 years, could truly make innovative and daring leadership moves given her longevity with the corporation. The article argued that after 33 years, Barra certainly has become enamored to aspects of the corporation that she likely may not consider altering—and, that inability or unwillingness to make those changes is damaging to GM.

Unlike the questions we raised around Beer Circle which mostly swirled around the health of our careers, the questions regarding Mary Barra and GM swirl around the health of the organization. And, regardless of the perceived success of an employee, they leave me wondering:

  • Do organizations hamper their organizational effectiveness by encouraging employees to stick around too long? (again, what is too long?)
  • Should organizations continue to give longevity awards? (effectively encouraging the idea that staying around as long as possible is the best case scenario for employee and organization)
  • Should leaders encourage good employees to leave their organizations in an effort to maintain fresh thinking within the organization?
  • Is the institutional knowledge of the old timers a good thing? Or a bad thing?
  • Is a change in position or office within the same organization enough?

While working diligently for our organizations, are we simultaneously doing those organizations a disservice by sticking around too long? What is the value of longevity and company loyalty?

To read the LinkedIn article, click here and share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Sundlov (SHA ’11), Ohio History Connection

Posted on June 24, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Mark, I’ve always thought that the moment the words “We tried that back in 20XX and it didn’t work” come out of my mouth, it’s time to move on. I heard those words so many times from when I was a young professional that I’ve vowed never to repeat them. Institutional memory can be a huge help, but it can also squelch creativity and create a risk-adverse culture. My feeling is that there needs to be a mix of old and new blood and that one of the jobs of a hiring manager is to pay attention to that balance on teams and throughout the organization.

  2. Rhonda Newton

    I’m still trying to figure this out! I think one factor, for the employee, is whether there are still new opportunities and challenges at their current employer. My current position looks nothing like what I was originally hired for 11 years ago. But as someone who works with (but not for) a state agency, I’ve seen the good effects and the bad effects of Civil Service where it is almost impossible to change positions within the agency and a pay cut to leave for a nonprofit. In some cases, the institutional knowledge is a phenomenal benefit while in other cases, it would be better for both the employee and the institution if the employee left for another position. I don’t think there’s a simple answer, especially once partners and children change the equation on the employee’s side.

  3. When I was first being tapped for the top job at my organization (after working for 9 years in various educational roles), I was told by someone I really respected that this was a very bad idea and that I was throwing my career away. “you don’t want to be like ____ and wake up 30 years later and realize you’re still at the same organization.” My internal response: “But even if I’m ED for 5 years, I’ll only be 40 when I move on. . .” A big part of the reason why I’ve stayed all these years is that I haven’t been in the same job–it kept changing. And a big part of the reason I went to SHA last year was to prepare for this new role and broaden my experience and network.

    On a slightly different note, we’ve had some major turnover in the last few years of some really long time employees. Our Director of Development was with us for 20 years before her death. Our Business Manager was with us for 21 years before her retirement. The previous ED was here for 18 years before he stepped back. Because of these changes, we are doing a few things differently. And yet, we all still really miss the experience (particularly with our donors) of these wonderful people.

    I think the strongest organizations have a mix of long time and new employees. And employees that listen to each other, no matter how many years they’ve put in.

  4. I seem to have an internal clock that’s set for 10-12 years which tells me I’ve had sufficient time to make an impact at an organization and it’s time to do something else. I also feel it gives others a chance to make their mark on the organization. I guess it’s similar to term limits on boards (which is another controversial topic). I will cross these limits if it’s clear that I’m still learning and making a difference and the institution is still benefiting and making progress because of my contributions. And it’s still interesting and fun (and I echo Trevor’s admonition to quit if I ever say, “but we tried that before and it didn’t work”). Each time I’ve changed jobs, it gave me a new boost of energy and enthusiasm for myself and my field.

    I’m in my 50s and have noticed that people older than me have their clocks set for longer periods (e.g., 20-30 years) and people younger than me have far shorter periods (e.g. 3-5 years). From my perspective, I look at the folks who have been with an institution for 35 years and wonder, “Is this good for your mental health and the organization’s health?” and “Are you working just for the health benefits?” At the younger folks who stay so briefly, “Did you have sufficient time to see your ideas implemented and tested?” and “How does an organization build momentum when the team keeps changing?”

    Stepping back, perhaps these questions are irrelevant because each person and organization should craft their own opinions about the nature and meaning of work in a museum or historic site (or in life) and pursue it accordingly. I am noticing a shift from a lifetime job at one employer to temporary project-based work at many employers (sometimes simultaneously), and although people may be more comfortable with the former, they might want to prepare for the latter if it comes.

%d bloggers like this: