THE BLOG
09/13/2016 04:13 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2017

Knowing When To Leave

If you believe the old Burt Bacharach / Hal David song from the late 70s: "Knowing when to leave can be the smartest thing a girl can ever learn." We are more than girls now, but we still struggle with the decision on when and why to leave a job and when and why to seek a new assignment or a new position.

I can't tell you how many times I have asked young women associates at various law firms why they decided to leave for an in-house position or another law firm and they have difficulty explaining the rationale for their decision. In some cases, it is a "gut call." In other cases it may be a labeled as a perceived vision that they may not be able to achieve what they want in their current position--whether it be more flexible hours, partnership or an allocation of work responsibilities. Yet, when pressed on the issue, it becomes clear that in many instances they have never have even asked for what they want or what they think they deserve. Instead, leaving is easier.

At the same time, recent research by Leanin.org and McKinsey & Co. has shown that women at more senior levels of management leave their positions less frequently than men. If we extrapolate, does the failure of women to leave positions or jobs at these more senior levels mean that they aren't willing to take the risks necessary to achieve the top job? So, do women really know when and why to leave a job? Or are our own issues dictating decisions that don't necessarily mesh with our own overall career strategy?

There are always good reasons for leaving a job. But if you have a good employer and are generally happy in the work that you are doing (but just somehow have a sense of "greener grass"), I would suggest the following questions be asked before you voluntarily quit your job, especially without a significant pay increase:

-Have I clearly provided my employer with my vision for my career?
-Do I see other women that have been able to attain the status/position/work flexibility that I want to obtain?
-Have I looked for or asked for mentors or sponsors who can help me attain my vision?
-Have I asked for a promotion or a chance to manage a project and been denied or have I just not asked?
-What would my ideal job look like? Do I rationally think I can achieve it here? Have I asked to achieve it here?

If you don't manage your career in whatever position you are in and whoever your employer is, it is unlikely that you will do so in the next job. So the best course of action is to see if you can achieve your goals in your current position before you jump ship to the unknown. It might not be the right time to leave yet. If you ask and nothing happens, it makes sense to leave. Career growth must be attainable.

But too often women haven't answered the question as to whether it is available. They have made assumptions rather than pushing their own career goals and agenda.

At the same time, women who have achieved a level of success in their position, need to analyze whether they can achieve the career growth and opportunity they need to move ahead. Too often, it is reported that women get pigeon-holed in staff, not line functions. Women manage projects well which leads them into positions where they are not necessarily dealing with operational issues. As a result, they might not be the person who "checks all the boxes" when a promotion comes available or in their own mind they might not think they are qualified as the next person for a specific position.

One of the great ironies that has been noted is that a man is more likely to think himself qualified for a position than a woman with a similar background. As a result, women often lose or don't even try for opportunities that will lead them to the C-suite. Some of this may be attributable to their own complacency and their own unwillingness to change or delve into the unknown. Women need to be prepared to leave. They need to be prepared to move on as necessary to achieve the background they need for the job they want to obtain.

So, I guess Burt and Hal were right. In developing our careers and maintaining both growth and opportunity, the "promises" of the future depend largely on women knowing when to leave and when to stay. To maintain career growth and development, you should ask the question often.

Loyalty has value and can provide a means to opportunity. But in the end we are each responsible for achieving and managing the career we want to have.