How Long is Too Long in One Position?

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This topic contains 17 replies, has 14 voices, and was last updated by  Steve Ressler 3 years, 9 months ago.

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  • #182155

    Steve Ressler

    Recently, I was talking to a rising government leader who was debating whether it was time to move on to another job.

    She asked a good question:

    -How long is too long in one position?

    -How do I know if it’s time to move on?

  • #182189

    Steve Ressler

    What I told the person directly
    -when you aren’t learning or being challenged

    With the caveat:

    -Don’t leave until you talk to your boss and boss boss about the situation. Most bosses will find other opportunities for great people whether its within a division, a detail, or training opportunity.

  • #182187

    Mark Hammer

    I think there are roughly 3 kinds of public servants: those whose commitment is to employment and stable predictable routine (and I mean that in a very positive way), those who are committed to projects and initiatives, and those who are committed to their careers.

    The first group is happy to stay where they are because it allows all the pieces of their life to fit together nicely. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? You’ll often find them among admin support folks, for example.

    The second group works on files/initiatives/programs that are ongoing or have long time-arcs, and have both pride in those things and difficulty leaving them behind to flounder or not realize their potential.

    The third group provides “services”, but is not especially committed to any single file or project; if there is an opportunity to provide their service somewhere else for more money or prestige or authority, they’ll take it. That would be illustrated by the person you spoke to.

    I don’t think the boundaries between them are hard and fast, but these represent 3 readily identifiable archetypes.

    Your questions pertain mostly to the third group. Not being in that group, I honestly don’t know anything about the instrumental value of the optimal tenure.

    I still find it weird when some new middle or senior manager arrives and we all get an introduction e-mail proudly declaring just how many organizations and initiatives the person has been part of, all generally within a tenure about the same as my own. I can only think “Doesn’t this person have any commitment?”. We wouldn’t judge a person’s fitness to be a great spouse by noting just how many previous marriages they’ve had (Wow, FIVE! They must be a really good husband.). Why would we perceive them as more capable leaders when they breeze in and out of organizations every 2 years?

    When it comes to the management world and “high flyers”, I tilt my head to the side like the RCA Victor puppy.

  • #182185

    Peter Sperry

    1. It depends.

    2. When the work is repeating itself.

    Points to remember —

    There is a very real difference between 40 years of experience and 2 years of experience repeated 20 times. While time varies depending on the job, the probability of simply recycling past experience goes up after 3 years and accelerates rapidly after 5. I’ve met very few people who were still growing and/or expanding their utility while remaining in the same job for 10 or more years.

    As Mark points out, professional growth is only one aspect to consider and not necessarily the most important. Public Servants in his first group may be content to remain in one job their entire career simply to maintain work life balance. Those in the second group may be invested in the long term project and want to see it through to completion even if their own ability to contribute eventually plateaus (nothing wrong with this as long as it does not decline). The third group will want to focus intently on how they fit into the project and when both they and the organization benefit from a change of scenery. If the individual in question has joined an organization and provided value by completing a project or helping achieve a major milestone, it is time to ask “what’s next?” for both. I’ve seen this happen in 6-12 months (mostly with consultants) and also seen it take 3-5 years. If it goes beyond 5 years, the individual is probably sliding into group 1 or 2.

  • #182183

    Elizabeth Sullivan

    I have recently dealt with that question and have come up with an answer. When you’re so comfortable in your present job that nothing you do provides any more challenge and you start to welcome new assignments. I researched enrolling in a certificate program to move to another grade and I was very encouraged by my manager and department director to do so. I thnk supervisors are more willing to help you in whatever your goal is once you’ve proven to them that you’re motivated enough to do the legwork.

  • #182181

    Steve Ressler

    Great story and this is key “supervisors are more willing to help you in whatever your goal is once you’ve proven to them that you’re motivated enough to do the legwork.”

  • #182179


    I think passion for what you are doing in that position is also important to consider when asking these questions. If you are not passionate about what you are doing, it’s going to show in your work, it’s doing a disservice for those you work for, and you are not going to feel driven to stretch yourself.

  • #182177

    Elizabeth Sullivan

    I have a lot of passion for what I’m doing, however I feel like I need the new skills to be able to point that passion in a new direction.

  • #182175

    David B. Grinberg

    Awesome discussion, Steve!

    In addition to the reasons already stated, some other factors to consider may include:

    • job security versus risk factor of finding new gig (especially private sector jobs)
    • job satisfaction
    • salary and benefits
    • work-life flexibility options
    • getting along with managers, supervisors and co-workers
    • feeling that your work is highly valued, respected and contributes to core mission
  • #182173

    9 years. that is all. I am due for a change.

  • #182171

    These are very good questions indeed. In short and in my humble opinion, it’s a value judgment. From an organizational perspective, one might honestly assess what value you bring to the organization, your employees, and leadership. Another view one might consider is what value does your current position provide you? In my 30 years of government service, succession and leadership development plans often have a lot to do with when folks are moved. If you’re the one determining your next next move, this last comment might not apply within your current organization as grooming selected individuals for advancement to the next level is usually a norm. If you know you’re not in that talent pool or group and you’re focused on moving up the ladder, you might consider opportunities where you have the opportunity to grow and move up. Again, there’s a lot more factors to consider here.

    Best regards,


  • #182169

    Steve Ressler

    Nine’s a good long run.

  • #182167

    Rohn Brown

    I think the answer is pretty short and simple…

    There is a MYRIAD of reasons why one might not be entirely grateful to be employed in their current position, the number of which can range from 1 to… well… ‘a myriad’! :o)

    Any one of us can have family, social, and/or professional reasons for wanting to “move on”. I assume that your friend’s context was very simply a professional one. But are such decisions ever ENTIRELY professional? If they are, let me just suggest that you have me me stick a fork in you and turn you over; because you’re done… :o) When career changes are rooted solely in the context of professional impact, you’re most likely headed down what may seem to be a very bright path to contentment… that is just as likely to end in regret, resentment, or worse.

    When you’re in the early stage of your career you are more likely to look at positions with visibility and/or promotion potential. Whether single or not, you may also be looking to secure the best financial opportunities for you (and your family)… and rightfully so! Mid-career, you are probably looking to acquire the best positions to either influence, or position your self to influence, strategic organizational impact. Practically speaking, when you reach the the latter part of your career, the remainder of it is most likely pre-determined. For instance, if you’re already in (or on the verge of securing) a leadership role, that is the path you’re likely to play out – with or without postion changes and, unfortunately, with or without the talent. If, at that time, you are recognized as an expert in your area of professional focus but without the leadership experience, capacity, or perhaps the desire, you can also carry out a very rewarding and meaningful career, but it’s unlikely you will make long strides towards a more influential position. If you haven’t reached either of these plateaus, that’s OK too! A successful, ‘well-lived’ life isn’t always (and probably most often, isn’t at all) one of professional success. But to each of us as individuals that means something unique and special and may well be marked by a balance heavily-weighted toward professional achievement.

    Let me make it clear that this is not meant, by ANY means, to minimize one’s desire for professional achievements and/or a “long and distinguished” career… ESPECIALLY IF IT’S IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR! It’s just meant to point out that a conscious effort toward balancing career, social, and personal balance is more likely to result in satisfaction and contentment with one’s life, and that the decision to change positions is probably not essential in the grand scheme of things.

    So I believe the short (OK! So I admit it WASN’T so simple!) answer to your question is…

    When you find yourself contemplating; actively looking for; or (in this case) asking others for advice about a position change… It’s probably time to move on. Good luck to all of you in the most important career… A life well-lived!

  • #182165

    I am in one of the categories below and continue to look for another job. I am in the federal government and constiently looking to better myself.

  • #182163

    Katharine Greenlee

    Hi Steve,

    These questions are key to the sound development of each and every professional’s career interests. Your rising government leader would do well to consider the following resources on the Knowledge Network, as they highlight some of the different types of career paths of local government employees, tips for a sustained career in local government, and the factors necessary for long term employment in the profession. I hope that your members find this information useful!



    [email protected]


    “Career Paths: Ways to the Top” –

    “Pursuing a Career in Local Government – Tip Sheet” –

    “The 20-Year Manager: Factors of Longevity” –

  • #182161

    Juana Williams

    I agree.

  • #182159

    Susan Burgess

    I just came accross this discussion. Thanks to all of you for these excellent comments. I was recently pondering this very question and sincerely appreciate the insights. Your comments have helped me to consider my position and look at it from a different perspective. I now feel that I can re-evaluate my current situation and make a more informed decision that will be in the best interest of both my career and my family rather than react out of emotion or fear of future change.

  • #182157

    Timothy G. Johnson

    I feel that only you know when the time comes to move on. When you no longer feel challenged, when your boss is indifferent to your suggestions and refuses to communicate effectively. These may be some signs that it’s your time to move on out or up. I have never seen a position with a time limit nor engraved in stone. If the opportunity presents itself and that inner voice says it’s time…it’s time. Just do it!

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