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when it is time to quit

Human Resources

Seven ways to know when it’s time to move on

Published 27 January 2023 in Human Resources • 8 min read

Whether you are burned out or bored, deciding to leave a job is never easy. Here are seven reasons why young professionals might hand in their notice.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shocked the world on 19 January when she announced she was stepping down after nearly six years as leader because she no longer had “enough in the tank”.

Ardern won global admiration during her premiership for her response to the Christchurch massacre and her efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. But it was clear from her resignation speech that the strains of high political office had taken a toll on her well-being.

“I am leaving because with such a privileged role comes responsibility, the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead, and also when you are not,” she said in her speech. “I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”

While burnout is one – highly undesirable – reason to hand in your notice, there are plenty of other reasons why people feel compelled to stand down. Ardern also referenced a wish to spend more time with her partner and their four-year-old daughter, mentioning how they had arguably “sacrificed the most out of all of us”. Many of us may reach a stage in our lives or careers where we realize that we want to prioritize taking care of children or spending time with loved ones.

New Zealand is also gearing up for a national election in October, and Ardern’s Labour party had faced a drop in the polls. Ardern said this did not prompt her decision to leave and that she was confident her party could win, but she noted “we need a fresh set of shoulders for that challenge”. Rather than face a phase of decline, some people know when it is time to step back to make way for others.

Jacinda ArdernJacinda Ardern: a skilled leader who recognized when it was time to move on

Through my work with clients on how to sustain the performance of top leaders, I have learned that the trick is to find the sweet spot where the executive feels excited and challenged by their role. This, admittedly, is a tough tightrope to walk. Too much pressure may tip them into burnout, while too little can lead to boredom – which is just as likely to trigger a resignation.

Whether you’re feeling burned out, bored, or itchy for pastures new, deciding to leave a job is never easy. Having worked with hundreds of leaders in the financial, pharmaceutical, and defense sectors over the past 20 years, I have identified seven archetypes for when young professionals quit their jobs.

1. The upgrader

Better job, better pay, better location, better perks. A step towards a brighter future. This person is always looking to go to the next opportunity and may quit a job as soon as a better one comes along.

2. The career climber

This person is focused on advancing their career and may quit a job if they feel they have hit a ceiling or are not getting the recognition or advancement they feel they deserve. Others may jump ship to take on new challenges if they get the impression they are starting to stagnate and want to leverage their skills and talents in a new environment.

3. The entrepreneur

Armed with a stellar idea or a desire to pursue their own passion, this person may quit to be their own boss and start their own business.

4. The holistic mover

A major life event such as a move, a change in family circumstances, or a personal health issue can also be a reason for people to hand in their notice. They may want to spend more time with children or elderly relatives or might be looking for a role with more purpose.

5. The wind down

Those experiencing high levels of stress, working long hours, and feeling unappreciated may quit due to burnout. If a person has taken time out and is still emotionally exhausted and feels like they can’t go on, it might be time to search for a new job that won’t do so much harm to their physical and emotional well-being.

6. The pre-emptive striker

Trouble is brewing, and their performance ratings are middling at best. This person may feel that their skill set no longer matches the needs of the business. They know the axe is coming, but they don’t want to suffer the indignity of a pink slip. Rather than facing a phase of decline – and associated drop in personal market value decline – they quit to be with family, travel the world, join the gig economy, or catch a new train.

7. The conscious choice

A toxic culture, an ill-mannered boss, or questionable business practices. This person decides to move on rather than fit in. This choice is one that might come with bragging rights, a kiss-and-tell, but perhaps also an extended holiday.

Should you stay or should you go?

The seven archetypes show that there are many reasons – not just negative – to quit. You may leave to take on a new challenge, because your talent can be better used elsewhere, or to strike a better balance in your life.

Of course, being able to quit a job is a privilege. Some people may remain tethered to a role that is uninspiring or draining because they can’t afford to leave for financial reasons or because of limited career opportunities in their area.

In this case, it becomes even more important to ask your employer whether they would be willing to make changes that will improve your quality of life at work, be this a new management challenge or greater flexibility. It’s also worth asking whether you can be transferred to a new team within the organization.

You may be forced out because the job has left you emotionally and physically depleted. If you’re getting to the stage where you’re struggling to sleep or find time to exercise or even eat healthily, it’s important to find someone who can act as a secure base and help identify the support you need before you make the final decision to quit.

Whatever your circumstances, you should never leave in a rush, or in a spurt of anger because of a careless comment from your boss. Make sure the way you exit an organization aligns with your overall values.

As Jacinda Ardern said: “I leave behind a belief that you can be kind, but strong; empathetic, but decisive; optimistic, but focused; that you can be your own kind of leader – one that knows when it’s time to go.”

The graceful exit: Once you’ve made up your mind to quit, how do you prepare for your exit in the right way?

In an ideal situation, everyone would strive for the “graceful exit” where you leave to a standing ovation, flush with a set of achievements and an appointed successor waiting in the wings. In reality, few manage to nail this.

Please do the world the small favor of giving a farewell speech that is free of clichés – make it personal and not something ChatGPT could have written

A stylish exit is personal, honest, and without bitterness or vanity. Once the news of your resignation is out, every comment and action may well be interpreted through the lens of your departure. It’s therefore important to pay close attention to how and what you communicate in the final months and days in your role.

The break-up: “Death must have a cause”, but still it is surprising that corporate exits, especially high-profile ones, are often cloaked in clichés and shrouded by obfuscation. There is often a battle going on over whose story or reality is the “right” one. Managers are often surprised that those around them have seen the exit coming long before they did. The more concrete reasons you give, the less speculation there will be.

The heirs: Although people are rarely asked to find their own replacement, often you can suggest ideas for your successor and help promote others. Make sure you prioritize those you want to support by sharing advice and introducing them to your most useful contacts before you leave. Ask yourself what you wish you’d known when you started your current role.

The final sprint: In your final days in the job, take the opportunity to tie up as many loose ends as you can yourself. If possible, prepare a handover document, and use the prospect of others having to live with the consequences of your actions as motivation. Think about what you have learned in your job (and express gratitude for it) – as well as what advice you want to generously pass on. And please do the world the small favor of giving a farewell speech that is free of clichés – make it personal and not something that ChatGPT could have written.

What would you do if your last month at work started today? Would you shine a spotlight on a deserving colleague? Would you tell your story more openly than usual? Perhaps you already know what you want to take with you, what you want to emphasize in relation to your legacy, and what you want to pass on to your successor, so that the baton is passed on well.


Merete Wedellsborg

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

Adjunct Professor at IMD

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg is a clinical psychologist who specializes in organizational psychology. As an executive advisor, she has more than two decades of experience developing executive teams and leaders. She runs her own business psychology practice with industry-leading clients in Europe and the US in the financial, pharmaceutical, consumer products and defense sectors, as well as family offices. Merete is the author of the book Battle Mind: How to Navigate in Chaos and Perform Under Pressure.


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