Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Quit while you are ahead

This week we focus on this idiom and a publication on moving from success to significance that a lot of us can learn a lesson from. As the title says, quit while you are ahead simply means to cease, end, or give up (doing) something in which one has found some great measure of success, especially so as not to risk spoiling or reversing that success.

In gambling, people often find it difficult to quit when they’re ahead due to the psychological phenomenon known as “greed.” When individuals experience success or good fortune, they may become overconfident and believe that their winning streak will continue. This can lead them to take unnecessary risks or continue playing, even when it might be wiser to stop. Additionally, the fear of missing out on potential future gains can also drive people to keep going, even when they are already ahead.

We share with our readers an interesting publication by Mike Comer President at The Hayes Group International Inc which was published roughly four years ago. It reads:

My mother informed me this week that she was no longer teaching a class at her church that she has taught for 50 years. 50 years! She was not giving up but moving on to new things. She was excited. Her replacement, the 35-year father of two, was excited and the class was excited. 

Most of us are not told to quit and leaders aren’t naturally programed that way. Although the small voice in our brain may say “Quit while you’re ahead” at the Las Vegas blackjack table – most of us ignore it! No success coach is saying “You should probably quit.” Motivational speakers are not chanting the mantra “Quit! Quit! Quit!” But great leaders know when to step back.

Knowing when to move on and forward is a trait of successful leaders. Quit does not mean give up and do nothing. It means redirect your energies. Stepping back allows you to:

1. Mentor, coach, teach, train, write and volunteer. More than 20 years ago I briefly met Bob Buford at Harvard University. He was there talking about his book “Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance.” His premise – the last part of your career can be even more impactful if you take your success, expertise, experience, and time and focus it on teaching others perhaps in a volunteer versus corporate role.

2. Keep your reputation in place. Most leaders have worked hard to establish a level of credibility in the workplace and their reputation precedes them. For years I have taught executive level presentation skills to upcoming managers. I often talk about the presentation in two ways: “Start strong and End strong.” At a major engineering company in the Midwest where I coach several executives, there is a gentleman who has been with the company 54 years. Recently he has struggled to keep up with technology, is not remembering things well, and his struggle to perform has led to personal frustration. His colleagues are frustrated because they believe they are doing work he should do; his manager is frustrated because (20 years his junior) he wants to do the right thing; and the gentleman is frustrated that he is not the stellar performer as he always was in the past. Credibility and reputation are what great leaders build and keep. Great leaders know when to step back.

3. Give amazing opportunities to others. As leaders progress in an organization, there becomes a reverse funnel – there are only so many vice president positions in most companies. Good leaders quit (when they are ahead) to provide growth and development for upcoming leaders. Two examples I have observed in my work recently. One example, a strong leader who was able to take a private-equity company public. She did well financially but it was early in her career. She consciously decided to step out of the company and give leadership to her COO. She took a sabbatical and came back into a different public company as CEO a few years later. Good leaders know when to step back! The second example is different. A large multi-national manufacturing company in the northeast has a strong seniority system and still has a pension program (virtually unheard of these days). Due to cut backs four years ago, several positions were eliminated.

Two employees were competing for the last administrative position: (a) a 33-year old professional and (b) an employee who had been with the company 48 years, had full pension benefits, was taking seven weeks of paid vacation for volunteer opportunities per year, and was very much involved in her community. Due to seniority, the longer-term employee was offered the job. She accepted. The 33-year old was unemployed. The younger employee was disappointed; the team was frustrated since the administrative person was on vacation so much; and the employee was upset that the team didn’t seem to respect her decision.

Quitting in this context does not mean giving up or stopping all activities. It does mean that leaders can redirect their experience, expertise and time in new ways. In today’s multigenerational workplace I would not tell workers to randomly “quit” – I would say great leaders know when to step back and good leaders know when to “quit when they are ahead!”

 Dr Mike Comer is the President of The Hayes Group International and has personally worked with over 115 companies in 18 countries as an executive coach, team facilitator and leadership trainer. His book (co-authored with Merwyn Hayes) “Start with Humility” offers practice suggestions for leaders to live and work most effectively.


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