CHS Careerist: Lessons Learned, Part IV

When you’re just starting out, you tend to think about your career progression incrementally.  This is especially true if you work in an office where there is an opportunity for your to climb the ladder internally.  But when you reach the middle of your career, once you’ve completed the drudgery of entry-level work and have reached a place where you have respect and responsibility, it’s easy to get complacent about continuing up the ladder.

In my case, once I had completed my tour of duty as an intern and a staff assistant and an LC, I felt quite content in the role of legislative assistant for my home Congressman.  I liked my Boss.  I liked my co-workers.  And, most importantly for me, I liked the work that I was doing.

After awhile though, it became quite clear that there was nowhere else for me to go within my office.  The Chief wasn’t leaving.  Our LD wasn’t leaving.  Initially, this didn’t bother me–I was less concerned with advancement than I was with being glad to come to work every day.  But over time, I think the lack of opportunity for advancement did have an affect on me.

Looking back, I realize that because there was no obvious next step to strive for, I became too comfortable.  I no longer challenged myself to come up with new ideas, formulate new projects or pursue new goals the way I had before.  I still did my job well, and sometimes, enlightenment/motivation would strike me, but my hunger for the job was gone.

Recently, I asked an acquaintance, who has been in the same position on Capitol Hill for almost seven years, if she ever feels like she’s stagnating.  She was very candid, telling me that there are days when she wishes there was an opportunity for her to advance in her office.  She likes the Member she works for and the work she does, but she knows that there is no more room to grow in this situation (she’s second from the top, and the person in the top spot will be taken out of the office in a hearse).  And while she sometimes thinks about leaving, she’s afraid of winding up somewhere that she doesn’t like or missing an opportunity should the top spot open up.

It’s easier to climb from the bottom to the middle of the ladder.  But, even without the pressures of family, climbing from the middle to the top is much more difficult.

In my case, spending several years in the same position knowing there was no upward trajectory was not beneficial for me.  It was hard to self-motivate and keep up my morale.  In hindsight, I wish I had more seriously pursued other opportunities to find a higher position in another Hill office.  But much like the lady referenced above, I looked around at the situation that I was in and thought, “This is good, why risk leaving?  Who knows where I would end up?”

My advice for today is this: If you feel like your stagnating or losing your drive, it’s important that you ask yourself why.  Do you need more challenging work or a higher level of responsibility?  Are you chafing at the title of middle management?  Can you find that growth in your current situation or do you need to seek work elsewhere?

Several years ago, a good male friend of mine left a Senate office where he was very happy and a Senator who was great to work for for a job with a better title in another office.  Everyone said he was crazy.  Four years later, a member of the Senator’s senior staff quit unexpectedly, and he got the call to come back.

I asked him whether he thinks he’d have been promoted had he not left for the other office.  He thought that perhaps, he would have gotten the job anyway, but he recognized that he’d learned far more working in the other office than he would have if he’d stayed.  And he firmly believed that leaving kept him hungry and engaged in a way that staying wouldn’t have.

It’s tough to leave a job that you like.  But if there are no promotions to be had and raises are few and far between, staying can sometimes be harmful to your success. You lose your edge when you’re comfortable.  And over time, I think people start to take you for granted.  So it’s important not to become so content in your job that you lose your perspective on what’s next or stop being open to new opportunities.


Leave a Reply to Liza · cancel comment


  1. LLDC27 says:

    Thank you again for another great post about careers. Having now been working in D.C. for 3 years, I agree that many have the general feeling of “why leave a good thing” whole-hardheartedly. However, what I would add, is that I believe women tend to adhere to this much more than men. I think the reason is that women are much more consumed with the idea that, if they were to leave, they would be “burning a bridge.” From a young age, little girls are taught to be nice and make sure everyone likes them. I’ve seen time and time again women pass up new opportunities just because they were scared of pissing someone off, while men tend to risk it and often succeed because of it. Men have figured out that honestly, most of the time, if you act classy while leaving and afterward, people will get over it, just like your example above. I’m not advocating for being a jerk and burning bridges left and right but ultimately I’ve found women are often held back because of this “niceness” problem.

    April 24, 2013/Reply
  2. Cynthia W says:

    This is true off the Hill as well – both times that my husband has made a big leap in pay and/or job title it was when he left for another job. Not only that, they ended up having to pay the guy who replaced him a lot more than he was making both times. It seems as if there is only limited money to give someone as a raise as opposed to having to raise the salary of the position to attract a new qualified person to the job.

    It’s kind of b.s., but I guess that’s the way that the game is played.

    April 24, 2013/Reply
  3. AJB says:

    I came across a similar situation about a two years ago where I had learned as much as a could in my job and stopped performing at the level I was capable of. I wasn’t developing or being challenged anymore, and when I asked for feedback about areas to improve or how I could get to the next level, I always got the standard government response: “You are doing great! Don’t worry about it; you’ll get there.” The lack of development and lack of constructive feedback caused me to only perform well enough to get my job done, and to not go above and beyond to try new things. I began coming in around 10am rather than always being at work before or by 8:30am, and I only had enough work to fill up about 20 hours a week. While I loved the people I worked with and the type of work I did, I was essentially miserable. When I got an opportunity to change jobs, I jumped at the opportunity, but I was also terrified to quit. I felt so much allegiance to the agency I worked for because I had interned there and been converted to a full-time position upon graduation. That agency had taken a chance on me, and I felt like I was betraying everyone I had ever worked for by leaving. Quiting that job was one of the hardest things I have ever done. But now a little more than year later in my new job, I have received so many more opportunities to grow professionally and personally.

    One of the biggest things I learned through that process is that being employed and changing jobs is a business transaction and should be treated as such. Its a give and take relationship, where both parties should give something and take something. You have to look out for yourself and what you want your career to be. If your agency/office/company is not longer providing you with what you want, then its time to leave. As long as you handle the transition in a professional manner, it’s not as big of a deal as I thought it would be, and many others think it will be. People generally want their friends and co-workers to be happy and successful–and usually people are very sympathetic to your reasons for leaving.

    April 24, 2013/Reply
  4. Liza says:

    What a timely post for me, and what a great series Belle! Keep em coming. Totally agree with the comment above that women fall prey to this more often because we are people pleasers.

    I have seen several instances in which people have left their jobs, only to be asked back several years (or sometimes months!) later to take a higher position. Sometimes it takes leaving to be fully appreciated 🙂

    April 24, 2013/Reply
  5. Caroline says:

    Is it really that wrong to be comfortable in a job? All around me I see people that are forced to work weekends, long hours, in stressful situations and unstable environments. I might not make as much money as I would if I left my job for something else, but I don’t think I’d have as much time for volunteer work and hobbies and other things that fill my life. I look forward to work everyday and I make enough money to be happy, so why mess up a good thing?

    April 24, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      It’s not wrong to be comfortable in your job, but it is wrong to let that comfort keep you from moving on (if that’s what you want) or lead you into a situation where you’re no longer doing your best work. IF you have found the balance, than good for you. But a lot of women use comfort and fear to prevent them from making a move that they should make.

      April 24, 2013/Reply
  6. BBB says:

    I could not agree more with those who say sometimes it takes leaving to be fully appreciated. In my short career I’ve observed countless colleagues leave an employer only to come back later for higher positions and salaries. As long as you leave professionally and on good terms, that will always remain an option. Loyalty is something to be valued, but it seems the days of 40 year careers at one company/firm/agency have ended.

    April 24, 2013/Reply
  7. CPG says:

    Great post. I wonder your thoughts about moving laterally vs. moving up? I think that new challenges keep you fresh, even if you don’t have a better title/salary; on the other hand, it might be worth waiting for a better opportunity…

    April 25, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      I have no issue with a lateral move it offers you something you’re looking for and offers you a path forward that you like better.

      April 25, 2013/Reply
  8. K says:

    Belle- once again, you have hit the nail on the head. I am struggling with this situation at this very moment.

    I really needed this advice more than ever.


    April 26, 2013/Reply
  9. TNM says:

    just stumbled upon this blog through another blog i read ( i live in DC as well (never worked on the Hill but in a health policy related career) and find myself in a similar situation as i’m currently seeking ways to grow my career. trying to figure out the next steps to get out of the rut is the challenge!

    May 5, 2013/Reply