Nick Fewings via Unsplash

How Do You Know When It’s Time to Enter the Transfer Portal?

As a fan of college athletics, it’s hard for me to know what to think of the phenomenon known as “the transfer portal.” And now I’m starting to wonder what might happen as the “portal mentality” creeps deeper into the broader world of business. Is this good? Bad? And regardless of whether it’s good or bad, what does it mean to us as leaders or as employees?

Student-athletes have transferred from one school to another for decades, but the NCAA has lifted many of the restrictions on that process in recent years. The transfer portal was created to help regulate and smooth the process for the transfers and the schools involved.

Shortly after basketball season ended, there were around a thousand players in the portal, with some experts predicting the number would eventually double. Players have a variety of reasons for seeking a change – a desire for more playing time, wanting to play closer to their hometowns, the hope of proving themselves at a higher level, unhappiness with their current coach or their team’s style of play.

In my experience, when your favorite team loses a good player to the transfer portal, you hate the idea of making the process so easy. But when your team signs a good player through the portal, you love it.

For players, the upside is that it gives them freedom and flexibility to do what they believe is best for their lives. But the downside is that it makes change so easy that many players miss the opportunity to benefit from the perseverance of working their way through a challenging situation.

Here’s how I see the portal trend applying to business: Most of us are free agents, so we can take another job (transfer) whenever we want. Today’s workers already change jobs on average every 4.1 years. But if we mirror the trend of college athletics and make a change even more frequently, we could spend our entire lives chasing happiness without working our way through the struggles that make happiness possible.

So, how do you know if you should leave one job for another? Or how do you mentor someone who is considering a change?

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There are tons of factors, of course, but I’d like to focus on the ones around personal satisfaction. And for that, I turn to a model that originated with Marvin Bower, one of the fathers of modern management consulting and a founder of McKinsey & Company.

Bower preached the power of organizational alignment around five concepts: values, objectives, strategy, tactics, and controls. Former Jet Blue CEO Joel Peterson has written about this, and he and I recently had a fascinating discussion about how it applies to personal as well as organizational decisions.

If you are dissatisfied with your job, in other words, and thinking of leaving, those five concepts provide a helpful filter. You can evaluate them in reverse order:

Controls. This is all about the things you measure.

Tactics. This is the who, what, when, and how of your work.

Strategy. This involves what you and the organization plan to do so you can win.

Objectives. This is what you define winning to be.

Values. This is how you act as you try to win. It’s what matters in establishing the organization’s culture.

If you are out of alignment with your organization when it comes to controls, tactics, or strategy, there’s a pretty good chance you can talk to your supervisors or partners and work that out.

If not, bump the discussion up another level to objectives. Do you have the same definition of winning as the people around you? As the organization? If you don’t, it might be time to leave. But before you do, look at the values.

In our conversation, Joel pointed out that values aren’t just virtues like, say, honesty – they also include business values. He identified three: Growth, profits, and mutual respect. In fact, he once left an organization because he lacked alignment on two of those three business values. He thought the company should value slow growth and emphasize increasing profits, and the leadership of the organization disagreed. So he put his name in the transfer portal.

OK, there was no transfer portal back then. And for most of us, there’s still not. For him, finding another job was the right decision. But before you polish up your resume and start roaming through job search sites, make sure you are looking to leave for the right reasons. The grass might not be greener elsewhere, and you might miss some wonderful opportunities to learn and grow right where you are.


  1. Ethan

    Interesting perspective here Walt. I can certainly appreciate it, but at the same time I also found the somewhat crude metaphor described in the book “Who Moved My Cheese” to also be compelling. If you find yourself in a position that is no longer rewarding or fulfilling and you continue to wait for that to return, you are missing out on the opportunity to find the next thing that fulfills you.

    Reply to Ethan

    1. Walt Rakowich

      Agree, Ethan. Sometimes the thing we dread or think of as failure or an ending is, with time and perspective, exactly what you needed!

      Reply to Walt Rakowich

  2. George

    I appreciate your concern and comments regarding athletes transferring. In my new book- Kian and Me: Gifts from a Grandson (November 9), l use my experience as athlete who failed to understand there was more to sport than sport to encourage my grandson (age 2),
    who, hopefully, reads the letters written for him as he prepares to leave home for college or whatever, that he thinks more about his thinking that l did at Stanford or Princeton.

    Reply to George

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