Questions to ask before you quit your job, from a Harvard fellow and C-suite consultant with 20 years of experience

"What am I not getting on my wish list that I'd really love to get?"

Amii Barnard-Bahn is the creator of the Promotability Index.
Courtesy Amii Barnard-Bahn

In a sign that the so-called Great Resignation is still going strong, a record 4.43 million people — 3% of the labor force — voluntarily left jobs in September, according to the Labor Department's most recent data. That broke the record set just a month before, when 4.27 million people quit their jobs.

It's natural that all that quitting, along with more than a year of pandemic upheaval at work and at home, has some of us contemplating leaving our day jobs for new opportunities, says executive coach Amii Barnard-Bahn. "We've had almost 20 months now — most of us, not everyone, but most of us — of being at home, cloistered in our own thoughts," she says. "That leads to a lot of contemplation."

In her recent piece in Harvard Business Review titled "5 Reasons Not to Quit Your Job (Yet)," Barnard-Bahn, who's worked with top brass at FedEx, Adobe, Gap, and Bank of the West, and is a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Coaching, suggests that workers who stay in the current gigs might have just as much opportunity for career advancement as those who leave.

Barnard-Bahn sat down with Grow recently to talk about the article, her Promotability Index Guidebook, and making the most of other people quitting.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

If there's a deal-breaker at work, consider 'your departure plan'

Grow: If someone is currently fantasizing about quitting their job, what's a good exercise to help them decide?

Amii Barnard-Bahn: An easy way to do it is to just take out a piece of paper. Have some quiet time to yourself, with a nice cup of tea, or a glass of wine, or whatever your favorite beverage is, and sit down and put in one column, "What are the things that I truly value about my job?"

It could be a regular paycheck. It could be my boss. It could be my companions. Maybe I like the actual work that I'm doing. It leverages my expertise. That's valuable.

And then on the other side, you put, "What am I not getting on my wish list that I'd really love to get?"

Maybe you're not challenged. Maybe you don't have a great boss. Maybe your workplace is really challenging right now, and you have elder-care or child-care responsibilities, and it's just not working.

If there's something that you see on that list that is immovable, inflexible, and it's a deal killer to you, then I think it's time to really think through what your departure plan might be and whether now is the right time.

But another thing to think about is where you want to be 3 to 5 years from now, and I've personally stuck it out at jobs where I was not happy. In two or three different jobs, I stayed almost a year in each of those three situations because of a couple of other factors.

'It can be difficult to reenter the job market'

Grow: What were some of those factors that kept you from leaving?

Barnard-Bahn: Number one? Financial stability for my family at that time. I had a family of four; I wasn't 25 and without a mortgage. I was in the mid years of my career. Stage of life is a factor that people need to think about as well.

I wanted to keep building my 401(k). I didn't want to leave without another job. I didn't want to be hasty and have it look hasty on my resume. I wanted it to make sense, and I needed it to tell a story, both for me and for my future employers. And I'm glad I did.

Depending on your circumstances, your relationships, your network, and where you are, it can be difficult to reenter the job market if you leave for six or more months. A lot of working mothers know this, and I know I always managed it very carefully: my pregnancy leaves, my sabbaticals. I kept a professional identity even when I wasn't working.

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'3% of opportunities are suddenly open'

Grow: Is there something that a lot of people don't put on their lists that they should?

Barnard-Bahn: Your company may have unforeseen opportunities. Let's say your employer has the 3% corporate quit rate: So, 3% of your company is gone. That means 3% of opportunities are suddenly open for employees who stay.

Let's say you've been in your job for five years and you're getting tired of it. And you think, "Gosh, I would love to do some of that other job." You could go and negotiate to completely change to that job. It could be lateral, but you're still building new skills, because maybe you need those skills to take the next big leap to an executive role or director role.

It's a wonderful opportunity to stay engaged, do something different, and still get paid well. You already know the people. You've got credibility in the bank from your years of tenure. That kind of thing is much less stressful than changing companies.

If your company is pretty good, and you've got sponsorship, then you're going to have a lot more opportunity — a safe psychological space to experiment — than you would if you left and had to start all over.

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'A sponsor is not to be confused with a mentor'

Grow: What do you mean when you say sponsorship?

Barnard-Bahn: As a younger person, I really underestimated the value of having a sponsor. And a sponsor is not to be confused with a mentor. A sponsor is someone who will put their reputation on the line for you at work. You may not even know you have one, which is the interesting thing. It's someone who has watched your work. You may or may not have worked for them directly, usually not. But they see something special in you, or they see a part of themselves in you. And they feel a real affinity and an alignment with making you successful.

They speak for you when you're not in the room, like when the HR succession planning is occurring. They also give you important feedback, like "Hey, you need to fix this or you will not get promoted." They need to be someone who is really going to give you the skinny and say, "This is how it works around here."

The pandemic has made corporate leaders 'more empathetic'

Grow: What's the mood in the C-suite right now? What should workers know about their managers?

Barnard-Bahn: At the Harvard Institute of Coaching — I'm a fellow there — we interviewed clients about the impact the pandemic had on leadership for a white paper that was just published. And our results overwhelmingly found that leaders became more empathetic because the pandemic was such a universal leveling exercise.

It hit you, no matter where you were: race, gender, economic status, and geography.

Smart CEOs are using situational leadership to really get to know each of their direct reports. Managers need to have one-on-one conversations with their employees to check in. How are they doing? Are they still on a high-potential path? Have they had a values shift in how they prioritize work?

I don't know if it's permanent, but at least temporarily, that certainly has happened for people in terms of realizing life is short. "Where do I want to be putting my time and attention? And what am I getting in return?"

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