How leaders should leave

Perhaps you're so burnt out or so excited about your next role that you're ready to run for the door, but slow down, cautions John Quelch. He offers nine tips for leaders who are ready to take the next step in their careers

Published: Apr 10, 2023 05:22:22 PM IST
Updated: Apr 10, 2023 05:29:39 PM IST

How leaders should leavePrepare your departure announcement. Assuming your employer was unable to resolve your concerns and you have decided to resign, a good employer will want to acknowledge the value you have added to the organization and publicly wish you success in your endeavors. Image: Shutterstock

Even the most loyal, long-serving employee may consider resigning from a job once or twice in a career in order to reboot or get ahead. Large organizations can offer more lateral opportunities to further your development, but the higher up the executive pyramid you climb, the tougher it can be to compete for advancement. With the career clock ticking, moving on may be the best option to grow.

Of course, not every resignation will go smoothly. Your departure may be more challenging if you’ve had an irreparable row with your boss, have been subject to harassment and are filing a claim, or if you’re leaving on short notice to join a competitor. But even in these cases, you’ll want to maintain good relationships with your coworkers; you never know when they’ll enter your career path again as prospective bosses, peers, or subordinates.

Here is a recommended roadmap for how to resign with grace and class—without burning bridges along the way:

Think it through. Discuss your career ideas and concerns with your partner, adult children, and two or three adviser friends outside the organization you can trust. Your resignation should be rational, not emotional. What are the financial implications if you don’t have an immediate new job, and what benefits will you lose? Can you imagine working in between jobs from a home office? What will you gain by resigning, and what will you give up? Are your skills in such strong demand that you are already being approached by recruiters?

Meet with the boss. No one likes a surprise exit, so don’t walk into the boss’s office, declare you’ve had enough, and announce you are leaving in two weeks for a competitor. Be prepared during an initial meeting with your supervisor to politely articulate your concerns regarding compensation, prospects for career progression, the workplace culture, and any other issues on your mind, and let the boss know that you’d like to explore opportunities to stay on. If you’re a valued employee, your boss will appreciate being given the chance to see if anything can be done to keep you. At this stage, it’s better to avoid blurting out the details of an exciting job offer from another employer. Instead, you can simply indicate that you’ve been approached. And don’t expect the boss to respond with a competing offer overnight; she’ll need some time to check with human resources and more senior executives.

Prepare your departure announcement. Assuming your employer was unable to resolve your concerns and you have decided to resign, a good employer will want to acknowledge the value you have added to the organization and publicly wish you success in your endeavors. It’s important that you ask your boss if you can see and contribute to the announcement before it’s released. Often, the announcement will come from one or two levels higher up the food chain, in which case that manager will likely be happy to consider language that you might propose regarding your contributions. Avoid a statement that you are leaving to pursue other interests or spend more time with family; these are red flags that could stoke negative speculation in the office and in the industry about your reasons for leaving. You want to control the narrative around your departure and avoid any hint of acrimony. You will also need to agree on a date of departure. Keep in mind that you may be explaining your resignation at every job interview for the next several years, so get your story straight and stick with it.

Agree on timing. As important as agreeing on the content of the announcement is agreeing on its timing. Sometimes, an employer will want to announce your successor at the same time as your departure to convey continuity to customers and employees, though merging the two in a single announcement could risk diminishing both parties. Alternatively, your departure can give the employer a chance to revisit the organization’s structure and assignments in multiple positions, in which case an interim successor may be announced. In either case, it’s best if the announcement of your departure is coordinated with and precedes, perhaps even on the same day, any announcement about your replacement.

Also read: A career in the family business: Duty or choice?

Advise, but only if asked. A good organization will plan for your succession, and to help out, you may want to develop a couple of plausible candidates. Your boss or human resources may ask for your opinions about who should succeed you, as well as your appraisal of alternative candidates. You should give fair and balanced responses, but you should not discuss these opinions with anyone else in the organization at any time before your departure.

Sequence your communications. Once the formal timing of the announcement of your departure is agreed on, you need to make a plan for informing people. Before an announcement is circulated in internal email, you should inform your personal assistant, your direct reports, and other close colleagues face to face. It might be ideal for the formal announcement to go out at about 11 a.m. (and not on a Friday), so you can take about two hours to make the rounds. Be sure to have a special word with staff members who have joined your team in the last six months; some signed on because they especially wanted to work with you. In these personal meetings, it’s important to thank your team members, reassure them that the organization is in great shape, and express your confidence in their ability to take it to the next level. I recommend leaving the group meeting of your direct reports a few minutes early and suggesting they continue the conversation among themselves. By doing so, you are already empowering them to get used to the idea that you will not be around.

 Keep calm and carry on. Once the news is out, plenty of gossip is bound to circulate about why you are leaving and where you are going next (if those details weren’t announced). You’ll receive plenty of grateful emails and handwritten notes wishing you the best, all of which you’ll need to reply to promptly in kind. You’ll also receive some with a slightly negative tone, questioning why you are leaving so soon or how your colleagues will survive without your support. Usually, you won’t hear from the people who are pleased or relieved to see you go. It’s important to maintain the organization’s rhythm until you depart. You should attend all meetings already scheduled and keep your commitments. Avoid taking on new initiatives but clean up as many housekeeping items as possible (including title changes and salary adjustments) before your final day, particularly any thorny ones.

Also read: Many companies aren't Prepared to replace underperforming CEOs

 Prepare to exit. Allow time for small groups to enjoy farewell dinners with you. Colleagues may even plan an organization-wide event and encourage constituents to acknowledge your service and speak about your contributions not only to the organization, but to them personally. Try not to be embarrassed; people will want to thank you. At a separate event, pass the baton publicly to your named successor and let her take the spotlight. Offer her advice in private (and upon request after you depart because a few issues are sure to require context only you can give), but do not impose yourself beyond a recommended three-way handover meeting with your boss. Remember: “The king is dead. Long live the queen!” Consider preparing reference letters for trusted colleagues that they can add to their personal files. Finally, leave a broom-clean office, except for organization manuals and office memorabilia, arrange to have your computers scrubbed, and hand in the office key and parking pass. Avoid fanfare on your final day.

 Adapt and plan. Even if you’re moving straight into a new role at a new organization, it’s not uncommon for you to second-guess your resignation after you leave. You may miss the office banter with the old gang, and now you have to invest time in building trust with a new set of colleagues. Hopefully you thought of these switching costs up front, though. If you don’t immediately have a new job to go to, spending more time at home with your family may be as awkward as it is delightful. But more time at home gives you a rare opportunity to reconnect with loved ones, discuss what happiness looks like for the next few years, and perhaps contemplate a change in direction. Reconnect with folks in your network, let them know you’re available for a new challenge, and would welcome their advice over coffee. You don’t have to jump at the first opportunity that comes along, but after about 90 days, you should have a solid handle on what you’re going to do. If you stick with that timeframe, you won’t risk being out of sight and out of mind and can look forward to starting fresh in your new role.

John Quelch is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration Emeritus at Harvard Business School. He is also Leonard M. Miller University Professor and former dean of the University of Miami Herbert Business School.

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[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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