Planning a Successful Departure

Thursday, July 22, 2021

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By Sally Bryant, BRYANT GROUP

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Author A.A. Milne penned those words nearly a century ago, but they still ring true today. Saying goodbye to an organization you have served, perhaps for many years, is tough, even when your new position is filled with exciting opportunities and challenges. Unfortunately, because it can be so difficult, it is sometimes done poorly. This doesn’t need to be the case, however. With forethought and intentionality, there are strategies you can implement to exit your current organization in an appropriate, healthy way that communicates respect and gratitude for all parties.

Too often we think all that is needed prior to leaving an organization is a well-written resignation letter and a few goodbye lunches with donors and work colleagues. While those are good and necessary, there is much more to consider when your goal is not just to make an exit, but to do so appropriately in a way that sets up the organization you’re leaving, your new organization, and you for successful new beginnings. It is imperative that you think about what an “appropriate exit” looks like before it is time to make one.

Lee Williams-Lopapa, who recently announced her departure from the University of South Florida, where she has served as Regional Vice Chancellor for Advancement and Alumni Relations for the Sarasota-Manatee campus, counsels, “Identify and complete projects that are necessary for the organization to move forward after you are gone. Do not leave them in a lurch.”

Your process should begin when you first seriously consider leaving your current organization. Whether you think you’ll exit in a month or next year, that is the moment to begin planning. Tracy Ostrem, who recently left the University of Washington after 23 years to become Vice President of Development for Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, advises, “I started putting [my plan] together once I knew that things were looking promising… I wanted to be sure there were no loose ends. I wanted to be sure if I got an offer, I would be ready and my current institution would be ready.”

Here are several strategies that need to be a part of your plan for an appropriate exit:

  • Identify and prepare plans for others to complete key projects. Although you won’t be able to finish everything yourself, ensure that there is a written plan and that the key players to carry out those plans are on board.
  • Determine the right time to reduce your visibility or participation in events or significant conversations, allowing those who will remain after you leave to play a more active role that will provide continuity upon your departure. Ostrem offers the following suggestions for things to do once you know you are considering making your next career move:
    • Delegate more, allowing others to gain leadership experience, helping them in their careers while also supporting the organization
    • Communicate more – to everyone
    • Include others in leadership decisions
    • Offer additional professional development to key players, including conferences, online seminars, and recommend books and articles to read and discuss
    • Think “succession planning,” ensuring one or more people already in your organization can step into your role, either permanently or temporarily
    • Offer professional leadership coaching to leaders and direct reports
  • Williams-Lopapa suggests, “Create a step-by-step plan for how your supervisor can ensure that the necessary tasks that would have been completed by you can be successfully completed by other staff or an interim in the months after your exit.”
  • Ostrem recommends working to control the internal and external messaging surrounding your impending departure. Ostrem made sure to tell her supervisors and direct reports prior to the official announcement. “Those are trusting relationships,” she says. “I value transparency. I didn’t want anyone to get caught off guard.” As you are sharing the news, it is important to communicate that you are not going somewhere better; you are going somewhere new.
  • In this digital age where information can be accessed instantaneously, it is important to facilitate coordination between your current and new organizations so their announcements about your departure/arrival can be simultaneous. Ostrem recalls, “We staged the timing of the public announcements – new institution and current institution—within minutes on the same day.” She and Williams-Lopapa both suggest clearing your calendar of other commitments for the day of the announcement and possibly the following day, reserving that time to steward your relationships with colleagues and donors at both your current and new organizations. Williams-Lopapa mentioned, “I was floored by the number of calls that started coming in almost immediately.”
  • When considering how much notice to give, we recommend 2-3 weeks for middle management level positions, and 3-4 weeks for upper management. (CEOs are a different story and may need to give 6 months to a year’s notice, depending on the size of the organization.) Understand that after the announcement is made, many people will view you as a “lame duck.” Ostrem says, “After 2 weeks, they’ve pivoted, and you’ll be surprised at how much they have moved on. They’ve accepted the news and said goodbyes. They start to transition.” Don’t check out, however. You play an integral role in that transition as a consultant and facilitator, assisting them as they begin to move forward. Provide insight and training to the team member who will take on your responsibilities either temporarily or permanently. Foster a relationship between that person and your supervisor.
  • Don’t allow your current organization to celebrate you without you also celebrating your team and all you accomplished together. Throw a party for them, surprise them with snacks, let them know how grateful you are for them. Your success is, in large part, because of their hard work.
  • In all you do during this transitional period, remember that the organization you are leaving invested in you for years. Your current colleagues and the organization they serve deserve your respect and gratitude. Plus, someday you may need a reference from a supervisor or colleague, or you may even end up wanting to return to that organization someday.

The way you handle your departure from your current organization has a powerful impact, not only on their ability to move forward in your absence but also on how you begin your work at your new organization. I must admit, though, that following these strategies still won’t make it easy to leave. No matter how excited you are about your new position with a new organization, saying goodbye is hard. These strategies will, however, make your exit healthier for all involved, setting up everyone for future success in the wake of your parting.

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