The Five Year Hitch

By Bob Bruner-

“It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones/ Who win in the lifelong race.”

** Robert Service

In a conversation with a student about careers, he says, “I’ll spend a year with [company X] and then move on.” I have heard about studies showing that job turnover among recently-graduated MBAs is high. This student seems to confirm it. And recent graduates do too: one of my students had three employers in the first two years out of Darden. Another had two employers in three years.

I can’t think of a seasoned manager who would agree that such rapid turnover as this would be good for the new MBA, the company, or anyone else. Just this week in General Managers Taking Action, Elizabeth Lynch (D’84) said, “Do new MBAs get it? I want to see commitment to culture, loyalty, and learning. Always be wary of the person who’s had three jobs in five years.” Last year she retired as Chief Operating Officer of Morgan Stanley’s Equity Research Division—after 22 years at the firm.

Let’s allow that there are lots of explanations for rapid turnover of MBAs. The last hired are often the first fired in a recession. Also, employers may not keep promises very well. MBAs may be recruited to work for people they like and trust (see my previous posting), but the rapid rate of change in corporate managerial ranks may replace the dream bosses with nightmares. And after all, this is America, the country with one of the most mobile societies in the world; like our pioneer ancestors, moving on to another job is a part of the culture. For women (and men, increasingly) family-planning considerations drive some of the employer-switching. But these reasons imply that MBA graduates have little choice in the matter. I think they have a lot of choice. Indeed, rapid turnover reflects a certain attitude about “fitting in”—but more about that in a moment.

The case for sticking around is straightforward: you ought to work for one employer long enough to gain the kind of wisdom that makes you valuable and puts you on the road to success. One year is definitely not enough: most seasoned managers would say that at the end of a year you really don’t know much about a company, its markets, and its operations. Like an airplane after takeoff, you are still gaining altitude after a year and aren’t anywhere near top speed.

Three years is barely enough. By then, you’ve been through three annual cycles, begun to gain a grasp for the rhythm of the place, and have a sense for how things get done in the enterprise. You’ve probably managed at least one good project. You also have a sense of the competitive challenges and opportunities that the firm faces. You will have begun to get “street smart” about the internal culture and industry culture. At this point, you are starting to show your real potential.

By the fifth year, you are in sync with the company and its market. You have probably proven yourself in some difficult circumstances and demonstrated that you are a reliable and competent contributor. In all likelihood, you have observed the response of the firm to a serious challenge, such as a recession, entry by a disruptive technology, or attack by a competitor. And you have a good personal network of professional acquaintances inside the firm, and beyond. At this point you are on the cusp of a promotion that will boost you into an appointment where your wisdom and competence will grow rapidly. And you are probably starting to hear from headhunters for some really interesting jobs. This gives you the information and range of opportunities for making an intelligent choice about your career path from there.

I urge students to be more patient, to plan to stay with a firm for a period of at least three to five years–stay longer if you can. It gives the firm a return on the investment it made in hiring you. But also, it gives you the substantial growth that the work can offer. In other postings on this blog, I have argued that today’s MBA students probably face a career of 50 years. What’s the rush? You should parse your career into segments long enough to be meaningful for you.

To be “meaningful,” an engagement with a company should entail a commitment long enough to have an impact. Thus, the time horizon an MBA student chooses is really a reflection of a deeper attitude about the difference you want to make in the world. A stretch of short hitches with companies probably amounts to nothing more than career tourism. But to stay for a meaningful term with one firm is to commit to having an impact there and fitting in.

Walt Shill (D’86 and Global Managing Director of Accenture‘s strategy practice) talked with me recently about professional commitments. He recited a poem, “The Men Who Don’t Fit In” by Robert Service, who portrayed the frontier culture in Alaska during and after the Klondike gold rush. In this masterpiece, Service causes the reader to reflect on consistency of intent and consistency of execution as determinants of success. His entire poem is instructive to MBA students and graduates.

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.

If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.

And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.

**Robert Service, “The Men Who Don’t Fit In” from The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses

Don’t plan to leave too soon. Don’t do “things by half,” as Robert Service said. Consistency of intent and execution yields substantial gains in growth, and ultimately, personal satisfaction. I know this from experience: I’m in my 26th year working for Darden.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 01/23/2008 09:51:28 PM