We all remember iconic movie scenes about quitting with a vengeance. Think Jack in “Fight Club” walking out with a year’s salary and a bloody nose, or Milton in “Office Space” with his red Swingline stapler salvaged from the ashes of the Initech office. While it may be tempting to leave your current role in a blaze of dramatic glory, please… don’t be Jack. Don’t be Milton. Instead, resign with diplomacy and grace.
Resigning diplomatically requires more than a well-written resignation letter. In fact, it starts long before you accept an offer. From the moment you engage in a conversation about a new opportunity, you should evaluate the position as it aligns with your goals.
Most of the candidates I recruit on behalf of our clients are happily engaged in their current role and not seeking a new one. As an executive search consultant, I assess the candidate’s technical experience, leadership qualities and review the potential fit, while you, the candidate, begin your own evaluation process: Does the position build on and leverage the skills and experience you’ve honed to this point in your career? Are you passionate about the new opportunity? Is it a strong cultural fit? Is it worth any potential downfall of leaving your current position?
As most people face resignation, they feel an unsettling mix of sadness and excitement; they are leaving something they grew to love for something new and unknown. However, If the new opportunity aligns with your ambitions and passions, approach your resignation with confidence and make a clean, graceful break. Here’s the counsel I offer candidates:
Beat the rumor mill.
Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger resigned as Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technical Officer last month with little explanation, fueling rumors of tension with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and attracting the attention of analysts. Adding to the rumor mill is the fact that the news hit the media before the announcement had been widely communicated within the company.
While your role may not be as visible as this example, there are still lessons to be learned. Consider all the constituents who may or will be impacted by your resignation—managers, peers, direct reports, mentors and mentees, customers and clients, vendors, analysts, investors and others. While your manager must be the first to know, of course, think about how you would like to break the news to your other professional relationships, and include this in the conversation with your boss.
Rehearse your resignation.
A fumbled explanation can lead to hurt feelings, confusion and awkward attempts to talk you into staying. Anticipate the reaction of your managers: Will they be happy for you, disappointed, emotional? Be prepared for all of these reactions. Sideline any objections with a clear and confident explanation that covers where, when and why. Be factual; say less, rather than more. List two or three opportunities you will have in your new role that are not possible in your current one. Rehearse your explanation with a trusted advisor or mentor both to gather an initial reaction and to identify implications you may not have considered.
Be prepared to leave immediately.
Within executive ranks, giving four weeks’ notice is a bare minimum; and you should be prepared to give a drop-dead date if you are asked to stay longer. On the other hand, be prepared to leave immediately if things go south or if you are going to work for a competitor.
If you are asked to work during your notice period, be prepared to…
Go the extra mile.
“Present a transition plan that lists ongoing projects and summarizes their status, your responsibilities, and appropriate contacts,” says Jane Howze, Managing Director at The Alexander Group, “and suggest possible colleagues to assume responsibility for those projects after your departure.” Offer to help search for your replacement; and by all means, make sure you have taken care of your work. Don’t leave your colleagues with a mess.
Don’t do anything illegal, or fishy.
It goes without saying, right? And yet, a lawsuit filed this summer in Harris County District Court alleged a former Executive Vice President “downloaded thousands of sensitive [company] files from his laptop to external storage devices,” the day before he resigned to work for a competitor. While that’s clearly illegal, there is also simply bad form. Innocently enough, you could find yourself doing things that don’t pass the smell test. Avoid any hint of recruiting colleagues to follow you. Transfer personal files in the presence of HR. Continue to play by the rules in every aspect of your role.
Now that you’ve taken care not to burn any bridges, take the extra step and build on your relationship with key colleagues. Express gratitude, share positive feedback, and volunteer to help out on a few final projects.
Even though, once you make the announcement, you are basically past tense in the eyes of the organization, you will always be remembered for how you left. Play by the rules; depart with diplomacy and grace; and leave all bridges intact.