"How and when do I know when it is time to quit, transition or retire?"In my 22-year career at Microsoft, I contemplated leaving the company three times. My first aborted attempt occurred in 1997 after I led the marketing team through my third version of Microsoft Office. I was pretty burned out in the role and the challenges of keeping a big marketing team happy and productive.
I went to a meeting with the head of the Office business fully intending to tell him I was leaving – he came to the meeting fully intending to promote me to Vice President (which was a big deal back then at Microsoft). He won.
In May of 2001, six months before the launch of the original Xbox, I submitted an official resignation letter from my role as Chief Xbox Officer. As I describe in my new book Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal, I was very frustrated with my own leadership, my inability to build a cohesive team, a project that was looking more and more like a train wreck, and the damaging effect all of this was having on my personal life.
In a set of actions that changed my career, my boss convinced me to stick out the launch and helped me find the assistance I needed to rebuild my personal and professional life. I learned more and achieved more in the next 9 years than in all my previous work at Microsoft.
Finally, in May of 2010, I informed Steve Ballmer that I was ready to leave Microsoft. Earlier that year, Steve had asked me to commit to Microsoft for the next five years – a totally appropriate request given the number and scale of new projects coming down the path in my business. After some discussion and debate, my wife and I decided it was time to leave Microsoft for a new mission and purpose.
To me, “walking away” is not about “leaving when you are on top” or “getting off the ship before it sinks.” In my decisions about staying or leaving Microsoft, I found myself evaluating my status at both times of great success and times of significant difficulty. Instead, I think making a career or job change is much more about life principles and how your current circumstances measure up. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on what I’ve learned about managing the pathways of my personal and professional life:
1. The Power of Purpose
In Xbox Revisited, I write at great length about the importance of having organizational purpose, but purpose is also a personal and career characteristic. We all need to take time periodically to evaluate our own life purpose and ensure that everything we are doing is aligned with that North Star.
My final decision to leave Microsoft was primarily about a shift to focus on social impact and the realization that I could only do so much of that while still fulfilling my Microsoft responsibilities. Changing jobs or leaving a company is not a decision to be made lightly, but if your work is not aligned with your purpose, change is likely necessary.
2. Family First
I could probably write a book about “work-life balance” as I’ve experienced the good and the bad of managing that pendulum. Keeping things in equilibrium can be a full time job in and of itself. There is a tendency and temptation to blame the job or the company, but most of the time the employee is the real person responsible for any conflicts.
Early in my work on Xbox, I had to face up to the fact that the only reason my life was out of balance was because I let it get that way. Like many issues, admitting you have a problem is the first step toward healing. Your personal life and the priorities you hold dear are an important part of your career path decisions, and you need to evaluate those in light of the job AND your own actions.
3. Learn, Learn, Learn
While money, fame, and position are all motivators in their own way, I’ve always been most happy in my work when I’m learning new things. Job content is incredibly important to our happiness and fulfillment, and for me, I need challenges that require me to explore new areas.
My desire to leave Microsoft in 1997 was all about the fact that I didn’t think I would learn anything new launching my fourth version of Office. Instead of leaving, I moved to a completely new role where I had to exercise new muscles and face different challenges. When you stop learning, it is time to do something new.
4. People Matter
It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of a particular project or the prestige of a certain role, but life is too short to spend most of your day working with people you don’t enjoy. Ask yourself whether you respect those around you, do they challenge you in a positive way, and do you trust them?
I joined Microsoft in 1988 in part because I was so impressed with the people I met during a very challenging interview process – and I was fortunate to work with some amazing individuals during my time there. Not everyone in the office needs to be your friend (in fact, that might not be healthy), but if you look around and say “I don’t like the people environment surrounding my job”, then you know it is time to move elsewhere.
5. The Deadly Sins
If we are all honest, ego is an important part of who we are and why we pursue excellence in our work. And there is nothing wrong with a well-proportioned ego that pushes us to do better. That said, it is very easy to get wrapped up in career progression and get misled into pursuing new achievements or roles for the wrong reasons – pride, greed, and envy are powerful motivators that don’t usually lead to great outcomes.
Instead, ask yourself if you have the character, the will power, and the sheer grit to take on difficult challenges, climb over or around obstacles, and to strive to be better. And do you have the grace to know when it is time to hold your head up and say “I’ve achieved as much as I can and the time has come for change.”
Athletes, executives, politicians, employees, and co-workers all face the question at some point in their life “Am I ready to move on to my Act II?” Some have made good choices and/or been able to walk away with their pride and integrity intact while others have struggled with re-defining their purpose and sense of self-worth.
People ask me if I miss Microsoft, and the answer is that I enjoyed every month there (OK…not every day) but that I’ve not missed it for a moment since I left. At that stage of my life, the time was right to pursue my new calling as a self-described Civic Engineer. When it comes to job and career re-alignments, timing is everything. Each of us must ask, “Am I self-aware enough to know when my time has arrived?”
Written byRobbie Bach