I didn’t see it coming.

When I left my job after 17 years with GE, I assumed my career with the company was over. Four years later, I was given the biggest break of my career and invited to return. Here’s the story:

I made the choice to leave GE in 1988 with a heavy heart and a lot of emotion, leaving behind great friends, associates and a world-renowned business. Because I had taken a job with the company right out of college, my business experience was solely GE. I only knew GE’s culture, its operating systems, its governance.

So, when offered a job with Case Corporation, it would have been easier to remain at GE. After all, I had been steadily advancing through the ranks, gaining opportunities and increased responsibilities. Plus, staying meant less disruption to my family, which had supported me through 13 moves overall through the years.

I was working in Erie, PA, at the time, but was in the process of moving to Medical Systems in Waukesha, WI. During these transitions, the recruiters tend to swoop in and make very attractive offers, and I was vulnerable to them. One reason: I felt my boss at the time didn’t share my vision, purpose or business strategy in serving the customer. In addition, I felt the external opportunity would enhance my career. Why not test myself and see if my skills and toolbox of experience were as portable outside GE as they were inside? I was ready to go, and I accepted the challenge of parachuting into a new business.

To my surprise, then-Chairman and CEO Jack Welch summoned me to GE headquarters in Fairfield, CT. I had met Jack in the early ‘70s, but certainly didn’t know him well. I explained to him my reasons for leaving, and told him that I had no issue with him or GE. Quite the contrary, actually; I felt we were totally aligned. The problem, I believed, was what was between him and me organizationally.

My move to Case Corporation in 1988 was everything I had hoped it would be. I spent four years as senior vice president and general manager of Case Construction Equipment’s worldwide business. My skills were tested, and my deficiencies honed in areas I did not have exposure to at GE.

I had to pinch myself when, four years later, Jack and GE’s HR manager asked me to return to GE. We had all kept in touch, and they were tracking my successes and realizing the portability of my skills. It’s a tribute to Jack and his GE culture that he asked me to return (although he subsequently often referred to my time away from GE as the time I “ran away from home”). I came back to GE determined to prove that his decision was the right one.

I spent nine months as CEO of GE’s Canadian Appliance Manufacturing Co. (CAMCO) before being named CEO of GE Transportation Systems. That put me on track to run GE Power Systems, which doubled in operating profits during my five-year tenure. I stayed on there until 2000, when I found myself in the bakeoff to replace Jack as chairman and CEO of GE. Jeff Immelt won that, and I left for The Home Depot while Jim McNerney, the other contender, went to 3M.

In so many ways – from first joining this huge corporation as an entry-level manufacturing engineer in Appliance Park, KY, to running a multi-million-dollar business – GE will always feel like home to me. That big break in 1992 meant the world, and I’ll be forever grateful for it. Because of the foundation I built there, I’ve since been able to lead a $90 billion corporation with 350,000 associates as well as an auto company that has now weathered a global financial meltdown and come out on top. Although my tenure at Chrysler was gut-wrenching, I am thankful for the opportunities I had there, working alongside dedicated and wonderful people at all levels, including Tom LaSorda, our vice chairman, and Ron Gettelfinger, then the leader of the UAW.

I realize, too, that leaving and then returning made me a more tolerant leader. Because I understand the urge to leave and was given opportunities I had never imagined, I have returned the favor and brought back several talented individuals.

I’m pleased with the trajectory of my business career, but I caution anyone who is contemplating leaving a company they like to be very careful, for there may not be a return path. I was fortunate to work with leaders who did not take my leaving personally, who followed my career path, and who allowed me to return and prove myself. You may not get that chance.

Finally, should you decide to leave, make sure you are going for the right reasons – and money and title aren’t among them. Look for an opportunity that will allow you to grow, both personally and professionally. Hopefully, your companies’ leaders will not hold such a decision against you, so long as you continue to share their vision, purpose and culture.

Read more about Bob Nardelli at www.bobnardelli.com.

Bob Nardelli has more than 100,000 followers on LinkedIn. During his 45 years in the business world, he has grown the sales and profits of a number of multi-national corporations including the General Electric Co. and The Home Depot, and he helped save Chrysler and its iconic brands when the American auto industry began tocollapse. In addition to his board and volunteer service, Bob is the founder of XLR-8, LLC, Investment & Advisory Co., which helps companies identify weaknesses and improve performance.

Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt