On December 15th, 2021, I will leave Spring – the company I have been with for almost seven years.
Along the way, I’ve seen quite a few people quit, fired a few people, and made some pretty big mis-steps when planning my own departure.
The goal of this post is to summarise some patterns and anti-patterns, so that in the future you or I can leave our roles in the most professional and positive way possible.
This was written with an audience in mind of employees in good standing at tech companies1. It would apply to other people working in high-demand industries, with functional relationships with their manager.
By convention, when people are uninspired by their role or unsure about their next career move, most hold this back from their manager. They feel a sense of duty to be invested in the organisation and to be appreciative of the opportunities they have. Perhaps they’re concerned that if they “out” themselves as a weak link, their manager will be let down or even seize the initiative to exit them first.
As a general rule, your manager being at all surprised by your leaving is a sign of communication failures and something to be avoided. There are exceptions to this general rule – for example if you don’t have high job security, or are in the country on a H-1B visa tied to a particular role. However, for most people in the audience of this post:
The reason I can recommend adopting these patterns is that I know that this kind of candid conversation is the sustenance required to grow and maintain a professional relationship.
If you open an honest dialogue with your manager, there are three possibilities:
The only unhappy outcome is the red one. But if you have a crap manager it’s better to find that out clearly, and early, so that a more functional organisation can benefit from your work.
A very short notice period will often leave a company in disarray, and leave the ex-employee with a lingering guilt for having abandoned their teammates.
At a minimum, independent of your tenure and level of seniority, you need to consider:
It is very difficult to complete these points if you give a week’s notice after a decade at a company.
However, as I found out when leaving Spring, it’s also possible to give too much notice.
I let my boss know I was leaving in February, so my commitment to see things through to the end of the year was effectively a 10-month notice period. I did this with the best intentions, but such a long notice period meant:
Overall, my recommendation here would be to think through the steps required for a smooth exit (the bullet points above are one place to start), work with your boss to figure out how long those steps will take, and make that length of time your notice period.
Your new role, if you have one arranged, should respect your decision to be professional about your handover period. They’ll wait, don’t worry.
Doing a good job of communication with your boss and being professional about your notice period – as described above – will go a long way to ensure that your soon-to-be-ex colleagues will emerge even stronger after your exit. However, there are other things you can do to maximise the chances that your departure will be seen as a temporarily-sad but eventually-beneficial change.
Why would I want for the team to do better without me? Doesn’t that reflect badly on me?
No, no, NO!
Sadly, I have seen people take this perspective. Perhaps due to some perceived slight, perhaps because of an over-reliance on external validation: some people want their teammates to fail after they leave. On the extreme end, people have committed full-blown crimes, but simple things like smearing other people’s reputations or deliberately withholding information can set the team back too.
Although it should be obvious, here are some reasons why it’s a bad idea to take this approach:
Whether your role is backfilled or not, losing an experienced teammate means that the people who remain need to step up into more responsibility.
This could be simple things like being the subject matter expert on something, owning some part of the team’s process, or even stepping up to be the backfill.
Actively identify the gaps you will leave: they become opportunities for career progression for everyone around you.
All but the absolute best managers become stuck in their ways after a while. Processes, practices, culture, and tooling become ossified and unexamined.
Perhaps you were so comfortable in your role that you lost a bit of the hunger to find better ways to do things, to bring new ideas into the team?
Admit – to yourself and to the team – that someone with new ideas and a different perspective is probably going to be a breath of fresh air.
Not only will your learning be accelerated once again in a new role, the team you’re leaving will gain new insights by questioning the cows which became sacred during your tenure.