Updated: Jun 23
Early in my career, I learned a lesson that has stuck with me over 20 years and is one that I often find myself sharing when invited into a coaching role with someone early in their career. It is the Art of Leaving Well and the impact of this on long term career options and success.
Although I was enjoying my role as a chemical engineer with Dow Chemical, I did not plan to stay with Dow for my entire career. Dow was going through a downsizing effort and had offered a generous voluntarily separation package based on length of service. I called my dad and told him with excitement that I could earn $12K dollars just to leave the company. Wow! I felt confident I could find another job and would end up with a sweet bonus just for leaving something I felt I would leave one day anyway. He wisely shared with me the importance of Leaving Well and there began my study of this little taught idea. He shared that it would be worth far more than $12K to do so, and he was so right. I ended up staying a couple more years and gaining a ton of incredible experience in new roles. When I did decide to leave, I did my best to Leave Well. I gave my team and direct leaders plenty of time and an opportunity to speak into how and when I left. I helped transition all of my projects successfully tying up loose ends and I gave them enough lead time to plan well for my departure. They wished me the best on my new venture and actually extended a written “Leave of Absence” recommendation letter stating that I was always welcome to come back to Dow and they would work to find a position for me. What an encouragement that was. Carrying that letter with me into my new role gave me great confidence. If I failed, I had a backup plan already in the works. I was committed from that day forward that I would always choose to stay well and if I couldn’t I would plan to Leave Well. Since that time, I have left two other roles where I have received a written “Leave of Absence” to pursue new ventures. Here are the steps I believe are necessary to Leave Well.
6 Factors in Leaving Well
1. Avoid Surprises by Sharing Your Dreams
Nobody likes to be surprised, if you are considering pursuing something new, let your team know about that possibility far ahead of your decision. If you could see yourself some day owning your own business, tell them. If you think you might go into full time ministry, tell them. If you think you’d like to try Sales some day and are in customer service, tell them. Don’t hide your dreams and they won’t be surprised when you follow them.
2. Give Plenty of Time
2 weeks is the “standard” amount of time and for some roles may be adequate, but for many simply is not enough time. If you want to me thought of as extraordinary or exceptional, give however long it takes to transition well. My last role, I gave 2 month’s notice to work through project planning and hand offs. It's not easy to stay engaged once you have made the decision to leave, but it certainly pays off and shows your character. I'm currently the President of Cambridge Engineering and I'm not planning to leave anytime soon, but if I did decide to leave to pursue other ventures, I could see giving a year or more to the effort of transition planning and execution. The higher level the role, the more time is needed to transition. You will be remembered more for how you left than for anything you accomplished during your tenure at the company so make it count.
3. Tie Up Loose Ends/Finish Projects
Make a detailed list of all of the things you are in charge of and projects you are leading and come up with detailed transition plans for each. Most people leave abruptly and leave their current managers in a lurch frantically trying to figure out how to transition. Imagine the poor taste that leaves in their mouth. Even if you served well for 10 years, if you leave poorly, your team will feel hurt by this. Be thoughtful and considerate of their pain by making it this easy on them and they will sing your praises for years to come. Again, you will be remembered for the projects you led last so make them strong ones where no one is left guessing that you cared deeply for their success.
4. Don’t Criticize, Condemn, or Complain
Quite often, you are leaving because you don’t agree with everything that is going on in the company. That is okay. That doesn't mean you have to criticize them after deciding to leave. It is tempting to criticize or condemn the management and share all of the reasons why you are leaving. You may even consider it your duty to let them know how bad they are and to “Coach” them while you are walking out the door. Often they don’t want to hear it. If you have a leader who has asked for feedback and been receptive to it all along, by all means, continue to provide it. On the other hand, if the leader didn't accept your feedback before you decided to leave, why would you think that would change now. Consider leaving by thanking them for the time you had and the things you learned. Consider sharing with others in the organization the positive impact they have had on you. Describe, in writing if possible, how your time at the company has prepared you for your next roles. Despite the fact that you are leaving, uplift and encourage them rather than criticizing or condemning them. I learned this concept from Dale Carnegie, in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, but it has been reinforced in every interaction with wise leaders I have had.
Demonstrate Significant Care for Their Future (not yours)
It is important that you show the team you are leaving that you wish the best for their future. That you hope things continue to go well for them or make a turn for the better after you are gone. Offer to be a resource if they ever have any questions about past projects or accounts. Tell them you'll be following their path and celebrating with them when they succeed. Develop a genuine interest in their success even though you won't be directly involved any longer in the creation of it.
6. Ask for a Leave of Absence (or at least behave like you would welcome one)
If you feel very bold, ask if you can get a written “Leave of Absence” in case your next venture doesn’t work out. If you get one, hold onto it and share it with every new employer as you move through your career. If you don't you'll at least have a story for your future and it will put you in the right frame of mind to insure you Leave Well.
I believe if you learn and practice the Art of Leaving Well, you will have many options for the rest of your life as you pursue how you want to make an impact in this world.
Have you ever had someone Leave Well from your company? Have you ever had someone Leave Poorly? What steps would you recommend for Leaving Well?