How to Quit When You Lead a Team
While leaders give a lot of attention to starting new jobs, it is equally important to plan your exit. Managing your leave is one of the most consequential acts you can do for yourself, your team, and your organization, and it’s essential to secure your legacy and your reputation. The authors offer six steps to take after you give your notice: 1) Identify your priorities; 2) Communicate your boundaries; 3) Create a detailed transition plan for your boss; 4) Prepare your team; 5) Set your successor up for success; and 6) Be respectful and responsive.
If you’re a leader who’s just accepted a new job, you probably have a lot on your mind. It’s normal to be preoccupied with how you’ll get up to speed in your new role, especially if you’re leaving a position you’ve had for a while and feel nervous about the change. You also may be consumed with relocation logistics or how the new job will impact your family.
Focusing on your future is understandable, but it’s important not to overlook your exit. How you manage your departure has big impacts on your team and organization. It will influence how your coworkers and organization remember you and either enhance or damage your reputation.
Take these two examples.
David*, a finance executive in a large consumer goods company, was recently asked to recommend a former colleague seeking a new job. The colleague had been a star employee but had given minimum notice and left a mess in his wake. Based on this experience, David was hesitant to recommend him and ultimately decided against it. He didn’t want to risk his own reputation.
Anna*, a CTO of a professional services company, worked long hours before her last day, trying to finish a high-profile project on her own. Consequently, she did not spend enough time with her successor or have meaningful closure with her team. As a result, the passion project, which she thought would be her legacy, was discontinued. Only after the fact did she recognize that she hadn’t smoothed the way for its continuation. She had been so focused on trying to get the project done, she had forgotten about her team.
Don’t let yourself fall into similar pitfalls. Managing your leave is essential to securing your legacy. Based on our 20-plus years of experience coaching leaders through career transitions, we recommend taking the following steps after you give your notice.
1. Identify your priorities.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish before your last day. Concentrate on issues where you really are the only person with the knowledge, experience, and relationships to sustain them. Ask yourself these questions to identify your “leaving priorities”:
- What are the most sensitive issues I’m dealing with and who needs to be involved?
- What historical, technical, or political knowledge may be lost when I leave, and how should I prepare others to close this gap?
- What do I still need to achieve to feel good about my tenure?
- What projects or battles do I need to leave unfinished even though it hurts?
2. Communicate your boundaries.
Once you’ve clarified your leaving priorities, set personal boundaries to ensure that you stay focused and avoid getting sucked into new crises. Share your priorities with everyone — your boss, peers, direct reports, and stakeholders. Your leaving will generate new dynamics, both within your former peer group and among the people you lead, as others try to fill the power vacuum. It’s important to clarify everyone’s roles in the transition and how they relate to your stakeholders and customers. You will need to remain vigilant about redirecting requests for your involvement to the right person, making sure that you are including others in decision-making and are less operationally focused every day.
Once you announce your departure, you should anticipate being out of future decisions and having less political capital. You will need to trust others to start making the right decisions.
3. Create a detailed transition plan for your boss.
Make sure your manager understands the priorities that will need attention after you leave. It may also be helpful to provide: 1) input into the future leadership and structure of your department; 2) insight into future challenges to the business, and 3) advice on the best process for shifting responsibilities to your successor and other key staff. Summarize all of this in a working document and share it with your boss. Your plan will also be shaped by the readiness of your manager and team to take over some of your responsibilities, as well as whether you are being replaced, your responsibilities divided, or your role eliminated.
4. Prepare your team.
Take some time to ensure that your team members are ready for their next phase with a new leader. If you’re working as you always do, you’re not preparing your team for the transition. Strive to build your team’s confidence by capturing and sharing what you’ve achieved together. Have conversations with them regarding what they hope to accomplish in the future. And ask them to identify the stakeholders that are critical for their success and what you can do to reinforce these relationships before you leave.
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Be aware that it may be harder to say goodbye to your team than you had thought. It can feel good when people come to you for solutions or wonder what they will do when you are gone. However, this can create dependency just at the time when your team needs to embrace independence.
Be creative in planning your closure. For example, one leader in a pharmaceutical company invited his team to create a timeline on a wall indicating when they joined the division and their highs and lows together. The team spent three hours together, recalling their experiences and what they learned.
5. Set your successor up for success.
Your successor should benefit from your experience, not have to start from scratch. Recognize that there are decisions that are best made by your successor but that they need the right information to make them. If you’re not deliberate in your actions and communication, you will unknowingly let people down. What is the hidden back story of why things are as they are? Pressure from stakeholders, internal politics, limited resources, cultural values, geographic connections, and other factors may have resulted in less obvious choices being made. What needs to be acknowledged, accepted, or changed to allow further success? How do you and key stakeholders diagnose the challenges that face the team? What three insights can you share about what your team needs to change successfully within the current culture and context?
At the same time, don’t leave problems for your successor that you can better solve. For example, have needed underperformance conversations with weaker staff members and allow them to showcase how they wish to respond to your successor. Some of the right decisions, such as restructuring the team or letting an underperformer go, may not be popular, so you may be tempted to avoid them. Take care not to justify inaction by rationalizing: “My successor’s style might get better results,” or “If things blow up now, it will ruin my reputation,” or “Perhaps the boss and HR will support the new person more.” Having the courage to have crucial conversations and make the right decisions sets your successor up to do the right thing.
6. Be respectful and responsive.
You may be so excited about your new role or want to escape as quickly as possible that you risk gaining a reputation for “having left already.” In this case, you may be nonresponsive to former colleagues and others who remain dependent upon you for direction. A reputation of being distant, not caring, too ambitious, or overly self-absorbed can follow you to your new position. Recognize that your colleagues may want to spend time with you to get closure and thank you for your role in their lives.
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Not all endings are happy. You may be departing for reasons that leave you feeling bruised or mistreated. Unless there are ethical or legal violations, think twice before using your resignation as a protest or opportunity to exact revenge. Publicly airing your grievances rarely brings lasting personal satisfaction and can burn bridges with people in the organization who are willing to help you. Most often, management coalesces around the people who are staying in the organization. Seek to share what you’ve achieved with the help of others and what you’ve learned from this work experience. By reinforcing these positives, you choose the tone of your departure.
In summary, don’t neglect the imperative to exit well because you are so focused on the new beginning. This is true whether you are going to your “dream job,” retiring after a lengthy career, or departing due to a restructuring. Transitions inevitably stir a range of emotions from excitement and pride to loss and insecurity. The ending phase of a role is not just a departure; it’s an opportunity to solidify your legacy, prepare your old team for future success, and strengthen the integrity of your relationships and network.
* Names have been changed