Early Career Blues : Why Quitting Your First Job Isn’t Always the Best Option

These days, I seem to be meeting quite a lot of people in their mid-20s and early 30s who want to quit their jobs.

Now, I know that times are hard and there’s quite a bit of stress flowing freely around the workplace, but I’m beginning to wonder if unrealistic expectations and a failure to understand the true nature of working life aren’t the real reasons why so many young people are feeling increasingly disenchanted with their jobs.

To illustrate my poimages (1)int, lets take a look at my most recent visitor, a rather pleasant young man who I’ll call Tony for now.

Tony graduated with honors from a well-respected Nigerian university before proceeding to the UK where he picked up an MBA from a prestigious business school.

On returning home, he served his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) with a fast-growing Telecommunications company. On completion of his service year, he was offered a job in the company’s marketing department. He quickly established himself as one of the company’s young guns and, with an early promotion under his belt, he soon came to be regarded as one to keep an eye on.

However, as things sometimes go, much of Tony’s rapid rise to prominence appeared to have been down to his working in a top performing team headed by another high-flier who took a shine to him. It also helped that the team itself had the good fortune to be handling a number of fairly active accounts.

A few months before our meeting, Tony’s boss and mentor had been re-assigned elsewhere within the company and his new manager was obviously not quite as enamored with Tony as her predecessor.

A shake-up of the team’s account portfolio had resulted in Tony losing some of his best performing accounts in return for some newly acquired accounts with seemingly rather dodgy prospects.

As you can imagine, Tony was less than pleased with this development. His vigorous protestations soon led to fiery confrontations with his manager and relations between the two quickly deteriorated. Now, Tony was sitting in my office wondering if he ought to be looking for a new job.

“Perhaps” I said, “but before we accept that all is lost, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

First, I asked him if he thought the organization he worked for had stopped being a good place to work? “No”, he said quietly, “the company is doing quite well and overall prospects for the immediate future seem quite promising.”

“Okay” I said, “What did your new manager actually say when you complained about the recent shake-up of accounts?” He thought intensely for a moment and then said “Well, she said I was one of her top marketers and that she felt my skills were better utilized in trying to raise the performance of the new accounts she’d assigned to me rather than baby-sitting my old accounts.”

“I see. So is it possible that she might actually have believed that handing you the more difficult accounts in the portfolio was actually a way of recognizing your abilities and encouraging you to stretch yourself a bit?” Tony grudgingly acknowledged that this was indeed a possibility.

I had one more question for Tony. “Do you have any doubts that you can turn these so-called ‘dodgy accounts’ around” I asked? “No, I know I can do it, but I feel I’ve already paid my dues. I worked really hard on my old accounts and it just isn’t fair that they were handed over to other members of the team who had put in far less than me.”
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I let Tony feel hard done by for a little while longer and then enquired if he was ready to listen to my take on the situation? When he nodded his assent, here’s what I told him:

  1. From everything he’d said so far, it appeared that Tony was fortunate to work in a company with strong growth prospects.
  1. In many ways, Tony had also been lucky to work for a high flier who believed in him at the start of his career with the company. Such ‘Super bosses’ often go out of their way to nurture and protect younger colleagues, and having a successful and demanding mentor had contributed immensely to Tony’s rapid career growth at a time when many of his peers were still struggling to establish themselves. Under such circumstances, it is easy to succumb to the erroneous belief that our success is due solely to our own abilities and not to recognize the helping hands of others.
  1. Over a long career, most people end up working with a number of different managers. The awful, painful truth is that some will be great to work with, while others may turn out to be our worst nightmares. Tony’s new boss, however, didn’t sound much like a nightmare at all. In fact, she reminded me of one of my best managers – a small, hard-nosed Indian Vice-President of indeterminate age. ‘MMB,’ as he was known, taught me nearly everything I know today about managing people. He was ultra-demanding in terms of performance, very thorough and had absolutely no qualms about telling you what he thought of your slightest slip-ups in no uncertain terms. Most of my colleagues and myself wondered if he had been an Army drill sergeant in an earlier incarnation. To be honest, my first few months with MMB were exceedingly painful. But, as the years have rolled by, I am increasingly appreciative of the fierce intolerance for any form of mediocrity, both in terms of efforts and results, which he displayed. If Tony’s new manager was anything like MMB, then he was truly blessed!
  1. In my experience, the best organizations tend to push us to the limits of our endurance, particularly at the early stages of our careers. The rewards for persevering and not quitting are usually real competence and a sense of quiet satisfaction that comes from recognizing that our true performance limits are actually much higher than we could ever have imagined.

As I shared my insights with Tony, I could see him relaxing and becoming more thoughtful. I didn’t have to ask him if he was ready to change his mind in any way about his situation; that was quite obvious. What I really wanted was for the decision to reconsider his intention to quit his job to be his alone, and one that he would make without any prompting from me or anyone else. So, I simply wished him well and asked him to stay in touch.

It didn’t take me long to discover that I ‘hated’ my first job as an industrial relations officer with an international oil company.

I didn’t like having to take a noisy, bumpy and frankly rather dangerous air trip twice a week. I certainly didn’t like being away from home for seven days at a stretch, twice a month; and I was quite sure that my boss, who was based comfortably in the company’s Lagos head office, was bent on killing me with his insistence that I undertake daily trips by helicopter to numerous offshore production platforms and drilling rigs.

To be honest, I was ready to quit after just three months in this horrible job. Fortunately a friend’s older brother, who had had worked on Wall Street at some time in his own career, talked me out of it. Along the way, he gave me some of the best advice of my life.

“Give it a year,” he suggested. “Everything tends to look difficult in one’s first year in a new job, because you’re encountering new things all the time. By the time you start your second year, you’ll have seen most things at least once and as you become more familiar with the job and its routines, things will get easier. Once that happens, I’m sure you’ll change your mind about quitting.”

He was right. By the end of my first year, assisted by a  great partner (see my earlier blog post, The New Kid on the Block), I was feeling much more at home with my responsibilities. By the end of the second year, I was positively in love with my job and beginning to understand just how lucky I was.

So, if you are experiencing the ‘early career blues,’ my advice is to hang in there. Things will get better. Trust me.