You’ve Been Here How Long?

Having turned 41 this year, I’ve crossed over into mid-life, or at least mid-career. I’m going on my twelfth year as a professional and am in my sixth year in an upper level leadership role. While I’m adjusting to a role in a new organization after leaving my position as academic dean at Moody Bible Institute at the end of May 2018, I still think back on my time at MBI and wonder what would have happened if I had stayed.

Ultimately, I think that if I had stayed, I would have become progressively disengaged. I would have continued to do a solid job, but I don’t envision that I would have really given my all long-term. At some point, my frustrations would have gotten the better of me. So, while I would have remained professional, I would have been more detached and distant…less inclined to really jump into the fray and push for change.

Perhaps the more interesting hypothetical question isn’t what I would have done if I stayed, but if I had stayed and become detached, frustrated, and increasingly less effective…would anyone have asked me to leave? Assuming that I cover the basic tasks of the job and remain within the boundaries of what would be considered civil…do I get to stay another 5, 10, or 15 years…do I get to retire from my position?

I won’t ever know the answer for sure, but based on what I’ve seen happen in a variety of organizations, I would put the odds of an organization letting me stay despite an adequate-yet-ultimately-underwhelming performance, at greater than 50/50.

Why? Why would an organization and its leadership keep someone who is no longer maturing in a position, but is simply occupying it?

  • Maybe it’s because there is a belief that the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t (fear of change).
  • Perhaps there is a tendency to assume that a particular individual’s strengths outweigh her or his weaknesses despite evidence to the contrary (complacency or fear of confrontation).
  • At times, I’d bet there is fear because of all the institutional credibility someone has developed over time that will make it difficult to move that individual out of the organization without experiencing major backlash (fear of political fallout).
  • There are likely moments when there is guilt about letting long-time employees go because we feel we owe them or that they will have a hard time finding another position (sentimentality).

In my estimation, time spent at an organization cannot be used as an isolated measure of success. Time without introspection and reflection seldom yields personal and professional growth, particularly growth in self-awareness. Without ongoing growth in self-awareness, we are hindered in our ability to evaluate (1) our zeal for the role we are performing, (2) our competence and capacity, (3) our willingness to put forth the efforts needed to drive the organization forward, etc. Time spent well can certainly enhance and deepen expertise…time spent poorly seems to result in bitterness, finger-pointing, frustration, and often hopelessness.

There seems to me to be a correlation between length of time spent poorly (without reflection or growth in self-awareness) and dissatisfaction with one’s organization. I would guess it is because as the years roll by and tensions begin to add up, unreflective individuals simply don’t adapt to their environment (or don’t recognize their inability or unwillingness to adapt to their environment). So if we are not genuinely reflective across our careers, we won’t consider:

  • how we might proactively engage our context and take responsibility to respond differently. We will only become more bothered by tensions over time. We will, at some point, feel that change isn’t possible and that there is a limit to our ability to grow.
  • whether we are really a “fit” for our organization throughout our career. We may miss early indicators signaling that we need to pursue a career at a different organization or in a different field.
  • Self awareness is critical to using time wisely as are, I’m sure, a number of other attributes and disciplines.
  • Normally, the longer an individual has been in a particular field or position, the more maturity, respect, and expertise we ascribe to her or him. In many cases, we are right to do so because those individuals who have developed more maturity and expertise have not simply spent time…they have spent time wisely. At other times, however, we mistake longevity for experience and age for maturity.

    So what should we do now? We should look to use our ever-growing bank of experience as a resource for our own reflection and growth. We can’t simply lean back on our time with an organization as if time alone determines how successful we have been. Time alone is not a great measure of success. Time spent doesn’t speak clearly to who we are or how well we have performed…sometimes seniority just means that no one ever had the guts to fire you.

    Don’t let your time in a field or organization be your excuse for complacency or bad behavior…don’t allow yourself to develop a sense of entitlement simply because you’ve been with your organization for 10, 15, or 20+ years. Remember, whether you leave a position or stay in your role you will want to look back on how you’ve matured over time…because, in the end, time spent isn’t valuable…only time spent wisely.