The time has come to tell your team goodbye: You got a promotion or a job at a new company, or maybe you’re retiring.
Whatever your reason for leaving, you’ll need a solid exit strategy to keep your team on track, working and positive. With such a strategy, you’ll also be protecting your legacy as a caring, competent leader—and you never know who you’ll meet again along your career journey.
“The most important thing is to maintain your own productivity,” said Matt Erhard, a managing partner of Summit Search Group, a Canadian recruiting firm. “It can be easy to get distracted by your excitement and anxieties related to a new position, but too often I’ve seen good [managers] give their worst work right after” deciding to leave their current job.
There are several steps you can take to ensure a smooth transition for your team and your replacement. Different dynamics will be in play depending on the circumstances. If you’re staying within the organization and moving to a different department, your former employees may have higher expectations of you to help with information requests and decisions than if you are leaving the company altogether.
Communication Is Key
The first thing to do is call a team meeting to tell employees about your impeding departure—without sounding negative, said Wendy Deacon, a Denver-based former nonprofit executive who now runs DestinationU, a personal consulting and strategic-planning business. “Keep the team focused on key priorities and what the next one or two steps are,” she said.
You may have plenty of institutional memory on your team, but it’s always critical to keep an active file of procedures, contacts and contingencies. “This is especially important for knowledge workers. People organize their thoughts and files in different ways. Typing up a couple of pages explaining where you are in current projects and how to continue them can go a long way toward smoothing the transition, especially if you won’t get an opportunity to work with the person replacing you,” Erhard said.
Carrie Williams, an executive leadership coach and owner of Los Angeles-based RainShadow Coaching, said that how you leave is as important as what you leave behind. “The best thing that a manager can do is reassure the team before they leave, because whenever there’s any transition in a team, individuals get insecure about their status, and that can affect the transition overall,” she said. “Helping the team get really clear on their values and priorities so that they can express them very clearly and coherently to the new management is incredibly important. It’s kind of like a team ‘understanding their why.’ “
Maybe you have the luxury of a long lead time, or perhaps you’re scrambling to tie up all the loose ends, but giving your team a month’s notice is ideal. “Focus on the projects you have, wrapping up the ones you can, and deciding who will take over ongoing work. Approaching your current work in this way can help you feel like you’re preparing for your new job without neglecting your current team,” Erhard said.
If it’s up to you to recommend your replacement or promote someone from your team, understand that there’s probably somebody you may not have considered—someone who is not the team’s star player—who has tremendous management potential. Gallup report The State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders says that 82 percent of companies make the wrong choice in selecting a manager, mostly because they promote a high-performing individual contributor who may be great at doing the current job, but who lacks the qualities of a good manager. “The good news is that sufficient management talent exists in every company. It’s often hiding in plain sight. … Specific tools such as talent audits and talent assessments offer a systematic and scientific method for finding those employees who have the natural talent to be great managers,” according to the report.
Passing the Torch
Erhard said that it’s critical to find several hours (or even a full workday, if possible) to sit down with the person who is taking over. You’ll want to cover the official business, as well as more nuanced information about problems you’ve encountered, team weaknesses and strengths, and other quirks your replacement might not be able to anticipate.
Williams suggested creating a detailed document on how the team works that includes any assessments, behavioral tests or performance reviews that could be helpful. But let the new managers form their own opinions. “All of that is valuable information for the new manager coming in, and it will speed up the process of transition. It takes some of the hiccups out.”
Finally, remember that the employees you leave behind may be worried about what your departure will bring. Be sensitive to the mood in the room. “When a new manager comes in, the biggest fear is that they’re going to have different goals or standards than the past manager,” Williams said. “And that’s fine. But everyone needs to be reassured that they’re still working for the same overall goal as a team.”