Lily Pad or Jump?

In today's market, there's a great deal of pressure to jump jobs to be successful. Judith Sills, Ph.D., advises when to stay, when to go—and how to know.

By Judith Sills Ph.D., published September 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Finally, you're getting good at the job. Or maybe you were always good at it, but lately it comes easily. You know what's expected, which problems will never go away, and who your friends are. Work has gotten… cozy.

Do you stay on the lily pad? Or jump?

Lily pad: How long should you stay in a niche that is increasingly comfortable, if duller, by the year? Jump: How quickly must you leap over or upward to the next pad or a new pond in order to pursue your professional grail?

Well, your answer will depend partly on how you've defined that grail and partly on the size of the bill for your kids' tuition. It will also depend on the ecosystem of your particular pond and the overall climate of the world of work.

First, it helps to acknowledge that you will be making (or avoiding) this career decision in a climate that greatly favors the jumpers these days. Only 15 years ago, a person who changed jobs every three years or so looked professionally unstable. Savvy human resources pros hesitated to offer jobs that asked for a company's training investment without the prospect of long-term company payback.

Fast forward. Today, it's the guy nestled on his lily pad whom the HR pro looks at with a critical eye. A person who stays with the same company for more than five years—without signs of skyrocketing upward—might trigger suspicions. Why isn't he interested in making more of a contribution? Is he just looking to milk the company for what he can get for as long as he can get it?

Indeed, jumpers are the current corporate pinups. But before you follow the crowd off some professional ledge, or belittle yourself for hunkering down, do a current-needs inventory. After all, over the course of a professional lifetime, most of us are both jumpers and lily-pad lovers. The trick is to get your timing right.

If your personal grail is well-defined, it will be easier to know when and how to make your move. One committed jumper described plotting her course with absolute focus. "I made an early decision to become a CEO. When I found myself in a situation where I couldn't advance, I looked elsewhere. I recognize that I'm a very demanding boss and my management style does not suit every situation. I just kept looking for a situation that needed my rigor." This woman's lily pad is never more than transient. That gives her a lot of forward progress, but not much time to rest up or balance out.

Lily-pad lovers have their firm adherents, too. "Success is finding the sweet spot, right here and right now," said a passionate advocate of the professional niche. His version of the grail is work that is satisfying, pay that is sufficient, and the flexibility to make a contribution to a company and still show up as the Little League coach. This man will jump, too, but only when absolutely necessary.

Sometimes that's too late.

Most of us are in the middle—usually wanting more money and often wanting more responsibility, but always balancing those desires against the risk required to satisfy them. To jump is to swap security for the unknown, to encounter rejection, to trade good enough for the possibility of bad to worse. Staying put, however, may mean stagnation, whether in your own eyes or in the eyes of management.

Evaluate any potential move by putting your pad in the context of the whole pond. You have two concerns, really. First, if I want to stay where I am, is my position secure and sufficiently valued? Alternatively, if I want to jump, is there available opportunity and am I being considered?

Look at your job through management's eyes. Are you being groomed to move up the management ladder? Or are you identified as someone of more value if you stay in your spot, offering the gifts of institutional memory and corporate stability?

It's a bit gauche to put your supervisor on the spot and ask if you are in a development position, but you can make a good guess by taking a careful look at what happened to the person who held your job before you. If he or she was promoted, you know the possibility is there. If the last three hit a ceiling and left, that gives you some idea of what your own jump potential might be inside this particular pond.

Of course, if you are concerned about security, you'll want to look past your job to the status of the company or the industry as a whole. Even lily-pad lovers will want to be prepared to jump if the company is going down or a merger looms.

There is no way to be perfectly in control of your professional future or to time your choices to ideally suit yourself and serve your boss. But you can come to appreciate the beauty of both options: Time on the lily pad is a rest in the sun and a lingering moment to appreciate in depth the whole pond around you. If it's time well spent, you'll be stronger when you make your next jump.