Make a Graceful Exit and Open the Door to Future Connections
No matter how much you love your job, at some point, it may be time to move on. Perhaps you’re ready to make the leap to entrepreneurship after years as an employee, want to switch industries or have just landed a better job with a new organization.
How you leave says a lot about you and can pave the way for former employers and colleagues to become clients, referral sources, future employees or just ongoing resources to lean on.
It’s been great, I’m leaving
Having seen too many otherwise smart leaders bungle their resignations, the executive search, corporate culture and leadership consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles recently launched a national survey of more than 700 U.S. senior executives and HR professionals to find out how to handle the task more effectively.
They found only 16% of executives said they would do nothing differently if given a do over. One of their biggest regrets was not planning — and rehearsing — what they would say when they resigned.
The point to leaving a job with as much intentionality and goodwill as when you arrived is to protect and enhance your professional reputation, and to maintain and nurture relationships that may prove helpful in the future.
Especially for future founders
If you are leaving to launch your own business, as long as you’re not in direct competition with your former employer, you may cultivate new clients from within your old organization. Although don’t count on these contacts to provide the early foundation for your business. It can be difficult at first for former colleagues or supervisors to see you as an outside expert or vendor, or to trust the staying power of your new business. But keep connecting; you may need to prove yourself with other clients first and then circle back.
Whatever the impetus for moving on, once you decide to do it, there are ways to do it better, or worse. Consider these proven practices.
- Tell your boss first. There is no excuse for doing otherwise. Do not tell your closest colleague and swear her to secrecy. Do not hint around to your staff. And, unless you work only remotely, tell your boss in person. This is the one thing you have control over when you resign.
It’s also where rehearsal can really pay off. You may feel nervous and stumble for words when the moment arrives. A well-practiced, clear and brief explanation for how the new role offers a unique opportunity for growth consistent with your career goals, and how you will work to minimize any disruption to your current employer can avoid hurt feelings and keep you from saying anything you might regret later.
Your boss may react positively, share your good news, throw you a goodbye party and wish you the best. She could feel blindsided or angry. Resigning from a senior position, especially if you’re going to a competitor, can sometimes lead to immediate dismissal. In the Heidrick & Struggles survey, almost all of the HR reps and senior leaders interviewed said that leaving for a competitor would most often lead to termination, yet most executives in the survey did not plan for that.
That’s less likely in junior roles, but it pays to think ahead about how supportive your boss is likely to be, and to know company policies regarding non-disclosure agreements or proprietary information.
- Provide adequate lead time, but not too much. Giving two weeks’ notice is the minimum. In more senior positions, a month may be more appropriate. Think about whether it will be difficult to replace you, or if others can quickly take up the slack in the short term. Also, check your employment contract for any requirements about giving notice.
But be aware that, as critical as you were yesterday, it’s not uncommon to quickly feel replaceable when you resign. As people plan around your impending absence, you see others assigned to key projects, are excluded from meetings, or are no longer sought out for advice, you may feel like an outsider.
- Wrap things up. One nearly surefire way to get people speaking positively about you after you leave is to bring projects to closure. Especially if you want to benefit from continued professional relationships, stay engaged and keep contributing to your fullest until your last day. That can include training your successor and even being available by phone or email to answer questions.
- Express gratitude. Whether you’ve been biding your time, or are leaving a dream job, you have undoubtedly gained experience and built new skills through your current role. Lead with that. Let your boss and others know how much you have appreciated the chance to grow and to work with talented colleagues. Managers respond much more positively to resignations when employees express gratitude for the support they’ve received.
When you deliver any important or potentially challenging message, consistency is key. Commit to sharing the same story with everyone. Resignations can prompt momentary gossip so it’s best to keep your explanation the same and your comments above board. When you take your leave as a consummate professional, you increase the odds of continued and mutually beneficial professional relationships.