“It’s time for me to move on.” For some, reading this phrase will lodge a pit in the stomach. As a career and wellness coach for a boutique financial planning firm, I sit with a lot of leaders who are navigating how to have the difficult “I’m leaving” conversation as they retire or move to a new professional chapter. Primarily, I see three types of leaders:
Whatever the reason is, when it’s time to have the actual conversation with their team and colleagues, it gives them pause. Leaders face the unique challenge of feeling responsible for the mission, their team and their clients. While the decision to leave has been made, initiating the conversation to break the news to a boss, board or colleague can be overwhelming. If you are in this position, here are a few suggestions that the leaders I've worked with have found helpful in navigating this career and life transition.
Many do this intuitively, despite whatever work-related frustrations might be lurking. Take the high road—no matter what your reason for leaving may be, keep it positive. As the saying goes: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
Have a plan to wrap up projects.
What are the main things you wish to accomplish before you leave? Provide a proactive timetable and take the initiative to decide and commit to what you will complete. Communicate your plans to those who will be inheriting your responsibilities to ensure a smoother and less stressful transition for everyone involved.
Let them know what you are moving toward.
Sometimes during a transition, we talk about what we’re moving away from instead of what we’re moving toward. Instead of “I can’t wait to quit my commute!” think about what you will do with your precious extra time. It’s important for your own emotional well-being during this transition to be intentional about where you are setting your compass in life. What’s next for you? Sometimes we have abstract concepts like “a better work/life balance.” What does that actually mean to you and how do you make that concrete? Are you taking up a sport or spending more time with family, less time in front of a computer or more time outside? Think about what you’re moving toward, and not what you’re leaving behind. It’s often helpful for other people to hear this, and as a leader, you are a role model in giving others permission to enjoy balance, too.
Consider your legacy.
Think of three to five adjectives that describe how you want your colleagues to remember you and your contributions. Recount concrete examples that reflect these adjectives and support these “takeaways” as the word gets out about your departure. These contributions are grounding anchors as you talk about your time with the organization.
Expect mixed reactions.
Being in a more public light, leaders often face extra scrutiny. People have different reactions to departure announcements, so it’s helpful to keep in mind that their reactions are more often about them than about you. For some, not having a predictable paycheck stirs anxiety or past traumas, and this may be reflected in how they talk about your transition. “You’re leaving and you don’t have a new job lined up?” or “What are you going to do with all of your time?” are examples of comments that reveal their mindset and are not necessarily a reflection of you, your plans or your potential. Don’t let someone’s reaction or their anxiety about ambiguity make you doubt yourself.
Avoid potential regrets.
What, if anything, might not sit well with you after you leave? What can you do now to make sure these matters are addressed before your last day?
Have a clear succession plan.
Perhaps you have been training your successor for a while. Maybe you have been out of the office for extended periods and colleagues have gotten used to going to that person with questions. Whatever the case, even if a search will be done, make sure there’s a plan in place to help others understand what’s next for your role; this clear communication helps ease worries that may be floating around about the transition.
Keep in touch.
Consider who you want to stay in touch with and how you’ll do so. Make this a part of your message or one-on-one conversations as word gets out. What’s good for you and what’s good for the organization? If applicable, how available do you want to be after your departure? Before you depart, communicate and negotiate your mutual expectations for any presence you might have in the organization after you close the chapter.
Prepare for what is next.
Whether it’s retirement or a new role, it’s important to weave in elements of what is next into what is now. Some find it helpful to schedule time on the calendar a few times a week to research or think about formal next steps so the transition doesn’t sneak up on you. Articulating a sense of structure, meaning and direction can help you lean into your next chapter more seamlessly.
In general, transitions go more smoothly when they are of our own choosing. I would also argue, however, the burden of making the decision to leave, combined with the logistics of the departure, can be overwhelming as they are intertwined with the responsibility and identity of leadership. Considering these elements as you articulate your intentions will help you close the door of this professional chapter and leave with a sense of satisfaction and emotional well-being.