The Road Not Taken

Lessons Learned on Starting and Growing a Successful Career in One Place

Contributed by Sean Taylor, Partner with Smith & Howard

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

If you are a poetry buff, then the first part of the title to this piece should stand out to you.  Robert Frost’s classic poem, The Road Not Taken, talks about coming to a fork in a path in the woods.  Our traveler is unsure about which way to go and wishes to have the ability to go both ways.  After examining the paths, our traveler cannot discern with clarity the difference in the paths and decides to take the one that appears to be the least traveled, and, upon doing so, concludes that this decision has made all the difference.

So in today’s day and age, I pose a question for you.  When it comes to an individual’s career, which is better: staying in one place for many, many years or changing jobs with some frequency?

According to a September 2014 economic news release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.6 years in January 2014, unchanged from January 2012.  According to the Future Workplace “Multiple Generations @ Work” survey of 1,190 employees and 150 managers, 91% of Millennials (born between 1977-1997) expect to stay in a job for less than three years.  That would equate to having 15-20 jobs over the course of their working lifetime.

When I see resumes of experienced workers come across my desk these days, I cannot even recall one resume that had the person at only one other place of employment.  Rather, the trend I see is multiple places of employment over short periods of time.  

So with this trend, the road most traveled, I come back to my question posed above, what is better – to stay or to leave?

Those that leave would say that they are leaving to speed up career advancement, to gain a broader base of knowledge, to increase earnings or to take advantage of better offers.  They might also say that they are looking for a change.

My personal experience is pretty straight forward.  I have had one employer since graduating college - Smith & Howard.  I have been with the firm for 21 years.  In that time, I have considered other options as they have come my way but have always decided to stay.  So, like the traveler in Robert Frost’s poem, as I think back to those times of two roads diverging, and my decision to stay, to take the road less traveled, what have I learned?

  • My career advanced quickly by staying where I was and expanding upon what I learned and what I had done with new opportunities
  • I gained additional knowledge through being involved in additional aspects of the business
  • My earnings power increased – Smith & Howard leadership trusted me and valued me and compensated me generously
  • I have been able to facilitate change and be in control of it.  You don’t have to change environments to facilitate change.  
  • You can change your career, the things you do, if you are willing to see things differently, even at the same place.
  • Commitment matters.  As John C. Maxwell writes in his book, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, commitment separates doers from dreamers.  Commitment starts in the heart, is tested by action and opens the door to achievement.
  • Transformational change rarely happens in short periods of time.  If you want to be a part of something special, if you want to take an idea or a company to new places it has never been, it is not likely to happen in 2-3 years.

In my 21 years at Smith & Howard, we have gone from a firm of 25 people to a firm of over 100.  We have developed many Level 5 leaders, those with humility and intense professional will.  Those leaders have been with the firm for many, many years – they’ve taken the road less traveled.  We have seen the firm achieve many goals and receive many professional accolades and awards.  I have experienced high levels of personal and professional satisfaction in taking the road less traveled and, in doing so, can only conclude one thing:  

You may think the grass is greener on the other side, but you are missing the point.  The grass is greener where you water it.

(Sean started his career as an audit intern in 1993 and is now the partner in charge of the Assurance Group at Smith & Howard, a top Atlanta CPA firm. You can read more about Sean here.)