The Art of Leaving: How to Move on Without Burning Your Bridges
Recently, I was talking to a talented entry level professional, who, six months into her first job, was contemplating quitting and moving on to her next gig. She was plateauing, she said, and didn’t find her role was suited to her career ambitions and growth plans. She looked around her organization and did not view the work that others were doing as challenging, nor did she find any role models within her team except her boss. Of course, her boss’ role was not immediately available to her — and she decided she would look outside the organization for another opportunity.
This is not at all unusual for many young professionals that crave meaning, stretch, work-life balance and satisfaction quite early on in their careers. The importance of patience notwithstanding, it dawned on me while talking to her that too many young professionals see leaving as a binary choice — you either stay, while remaining dissatisfied, or you leave, and fulfill your ambitions.
Firstly, there is a common misconception that leaving will actually fix your concerns. You might move into another organization and face the same problems. Secondly, many young professionals don’t realize that other choices exist, allowing you to maximize your career growth and your sense of fulfillment. A well-planned exit might mean that, while you might still end up leaving, you leave well, and with a manager and an employer who will advocate for you and your career as you depart.
While there are several reasons to leave a job, many of which are highly circumstantial and impossible to judge from the outside, it is nonetheless very important to know how to leave a job. Here are a few suggestions on how to leave a job well.
#1 Your job is a stepping stone, not an end-goal.
Seeing every job as a building block to a long-term career allows you to focus on what matters, and to reap the investment from every experience. Even if you feel like you’re in a dead-end role, exploit the role to its fullest potential. Every job can offer that; it is a matter of how you view it. A good mental exercise is this: pretend that you were leaving the organization tomorrow. What are the top five skills and experiences you wish you had had before you left? Were you able to have lunch with the colleague whose leadership style you so admired? Were you able to publish something on behalf of your organization to get your brand out there? Did you attend an external-facing event for your company and expand your personal network, while being paid to do so? Sometimes, in pursuing a “perfect” role, you might miss all the learning opportunities within your current role. If you evaluate every job as to whether or not it is the “dream job” then you are missing the point of a career.
#2 Subtlety is everything!
Thinking of your job as a stepping stone does not mean you act as if you had one foot out the door all the time. Learning how to network for yourself while respecting the bounds of your current role, is an art. Selling yourself to potential employers, as if you were constantly interviewing for a new job while in your old one, is poor form. However, building a robust professional network is a great way to develop an understanding of the broader market for your job — without seeming over-eager to leave your current job. Maintaining a healthy network of advisors who you turn to for advice and career insights, regardless of whether or when you plan to leave your job, is always useful. These are subtle ways of keeping your ears and eyes open to new opportunities without seeming like you are constantly looking for something new. Besides, you will likely learn from new experiences and apply them to your current role as well.
#3 Treat your manager as your career advocate, not just your employer.
While not all managers may be experienced and mature enough to accommodate your growth plans, especially if they involve leaving your role, try to involve your manager in your long-term career aspirations. Make them your ally and your advocate by painting the big picture for yourself and for them, and include them in your long term career building and trajectory. For example, if you’re feeling frustrated and dissatisfied, ask for their advice. What would they do, for example, if they were you, and were eager to gain experience? Ask them for regular feedback, and ask them who they think you should be talking to for more advice and insights as you advance in your career.
If you develop a trusting rapport with your manager, it is likely that they will back you up for a decision that’s in your best interests, even if it might mean you leave. You want your manager to be the one writing a referral for you many years after you have left an organization. If your exit comes as a complete surprise to your manager, it is likely that you may not have involved them in your career plans. Demonstrate interest in your manager’s world, too. What are the problems that they are grappling with? What can you do in your role to make their job easier? After all, trust goes both ways. You don’t want to come across as purely self-serving — demonstrating genuine interest will in turn enable you to use the relationship to also serve your own career ambitions.
If you’re a manager, learn how to coach and let go of a team member, especially if they aren’t finding satisfaction in their current role. Be gracious, and be aware of the influence that you wield in your team members’ professional life. Introduce your team members to opportunities and to networks that could benefit them, especially if you feel like they are doing their best to make the most of their role, while keeping the big picture in mind.
#4 Leave respectfully, and well.
If you must leave, after having tried everything, leave well. I have interacted with several organizations who have a bitter taste after the hasty and unexpected exit of a young professional. Networks are small and gossipy, and a reputation once tarnished is hard to reclaim. Unless there are egregious and extenuating circumstances, ensure that you give your manager more notice than necessarily stipulated in your contract. Do not be accusatory or disrespectful of the organization, unless the situation is beyond repair.
As a manager, I have benefited greatly from the highly professional and graceful exits of many of my team members, some of whom have gone well beyond the call of duty to help their successors and transition in new team members. Managers, it is critical to understand why your team member chooses to leave, and to respect a decision once it has been made. Take the opportunity to give each other useful feedback even if exit is imminent, as this demonstrates good faith on both sides and ensures that the relationship stands the test of time.
You can treat your relationship with your employer as a purely transactional one, or you can see it as a longer-term partnership in your career journey. A long-term partnership ensures that you surround yourself with allies as you transition from one role to the next—and you never know when your paths may cross again.
Sharmi Surianarain is the Vice President of Lifelong Engagement at African Leadership Academy, where she leads the effort to connect ALA young leaders and MasterCard Foundation Scholars to opportunities for impact across the African continent. Sharmi currently oversees a network of nearly 2000 young leaders across ALA and the MasterCard Foundation, connecting them to a network of opportunities ranging from scholarships, to careers and beyond.
Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.
Executive, Harambee Africa
Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator
Sharmi has spent most of her career as an opportunity activist for youth, building on her experience in international education in order to understand the links between education and employment across multiple countries in sub-Saharan Africa as well as India and the United States. After building the foundation for the African Leadership Academy alumni network and careers offering, Sharmi joined Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in July 2018 to lead the South African organization's efforts to... Continue Reading
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