One of the more interesting aspects of working in today’s very (very) connected world is the sense that we never really say goodbye. We may change jobs, change cities… but it has never been easier to remain connected to the people we used to work with. I have found this to be true even when the connection itself was not very deep while employed together.
In fact, I can think of many times where my relationship with someone evolved dramatically from colleague to friendship only after we stopped working in the same organization. The “breaking up” part of working together (especially in tech) is now widely accepted as a norm. It’s part of our career path. This being said, looking back, I can see a lot of room for personal improvement in how I handle this significant part of my life.
Today, I find myself once again planning to part ways with a client. I am currently a member of an internal consultancy testing team called S.H.I.E.L.D (Yes, that’s right. I am an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. And we are pretty badass… for you know… software folk). This feels like an excellent time to consider:
- What I have learned from my past experiences of leaving organizations
- What I have learned about maintaining relationships in highly a connected community
- Thinking about those who follow up on my work, what might I have appreciated when first joining this organization?
- How might I wish to be personally remembered?
- How might I hope that my team will be remembered?
Maybe that’s the big one… How do we want to be remembered?
Agent Phil Coulson: “What do we do?”
Nick Fury: “We get ready.”
It’s Not You… It’s Not Me Either…
Often, we leave work for very very good reasons. It might be our choice. It might be someone else’s choice. Often it is about new adventures, and at times it is due to circumstance. However, in the end there are a series of value based decisions being made. No matter how we might like to think about our career as a whole, any one professional engagement is based on business opportunity (this does not necessarily mean money, but money typically ends up being the measure of the opportunity).
Ignoring the “why”, when a decision is made to end that professional engagement, I have found that there is one (and only one) dimension that I have complete control over: “How would I like to be remembered?” (I am making an effort here to not conflate this with “How will I be remembered?”)
A while ago, I wrote a bit while I explored a question around “Am I a Good Manager?”. That blog entry was quite different for me. I was uncertain about my message and I used the writing exercise as a method to consider my thoughts on the question. Part way through the exercise, I described leaving one employer and being quite upset about how I have been remembered by those at the management level. But, as I wrote and worked through those emotions, I could accept that their feelings are valid. When I was leaving that company, I was frustrated. I had grown tired of waiting for change. I had given up on “tomorrow”. I was at that company for over a decade, but the lasting memories are dominated by my final interactions, and departing actions (or inactions) while I still held a position of manager. It may be hard to appreciate, but this is completely normal. In relationship terms… when we break up, we best remember the state of the relationship that led to the breakup.
Making Sense Of It All
With this in mind, I now try to consider dimensions of relationships when it is clear that I will be parting ways with an organization, my team or my colleagues. It is not a playbook, but rather a decision about how I might prefer the story told by those who reflect on working with me.
Try to imagine someone new to the organization, attempting to get started on some tasks that might benefit from your work. Put yourself in their shoes… what might be helpful? Are there different ways that your knowledge/insights might be recorded or structured? If possible, you can organize information in more than one format and request feedback from multiple members of the organization to see what they might prefer (especially newer members).
Data and Insights… Not Direction:
This one is tricky. One mistake I have made in the past (when sincerely trying to accommodate the previous point) was subconsciously guide others to my strategies. Convince them of my approaches. True… I may have come to these thoughts thanks to years of critical thinking, experimentation and evaluation, but…
- I cannot expect someone else to immediate leap to where I am, and to where it quite possibly took me years of learning to get to.
- I am entirely ignoring any wealth of experience and knowledge that someone else might be bringing with them when picking up where I left off.
If I put myself in the same situation… I would much prefer the ability to explore and learn over being asked to continue with someone else’s direction.
With this in mind, I would recommend an exercise of breaking things down first to:
- What you have identified as known/unknown
- What data you know is available (how this gets structured is highly dependent on the first point)
- An independent description of strategies/assumptions/approaches that you can offer to anyone who might be interested.
It would be helpful to describe what you based your decisions on, and why you felt it was useful. It might also be useful to provide any other approaches/ideas that you considered but did not pursue, and why you made those decisions. If you can provide access to your knowledge and experience, without boxing others into your decisions, there is an excellent opportunity for them to extend your work and move it somewhere better.
The Elevator Pitch:
This one might be the most important. Imagine someone coming across something you wrote, or something your team created. They ask someone: “Who is <your name>?” or “What is <your team>?”. What is the answer you hope will be offered? If you want to truly consider this, you will need to have started thinking about your many relationships long before you leave the organization. This answer will differ immensely from group to group… person to person.
A key starting point here is differentiating reality from fantasy. One of the biggest influences for me over the past year has come from the work of Dave Snowden regarding Complexity. Especially with respect to examining how I go about making decisions. Identifying some default behaviours I have learned to lean on. Recognizing how tend to act in certain situations.
With this in mind, I recognize that this exercise might well be driven by initially thinking about how we want the future to look (with respect to these relationships), but that is not a known reality. I would prefer to start by truly examining what is known, and from these findings identify what might be possible to try:
- Explore the relationships… both direct and indirect.
- Use tools to identify gaps and connections. (mind maps, influence models… etc)
- Define personas and user stories! (There are plenty of great tools in the agile world that come in very handy for this exercise)
- Mine through emails and communication, and cross reference it with org structure.
- Seek out these individuals, and see if you can share their favourite story (micro-narrative) about your working relationship. (I am again borrowing from from Snowden here – SenseMaking)
- Work with these individuals to identify what they might be depending on that you have not considered, and collaborate on how to mitigate that loss.
With this in mind, gather your data. Build different models for viewing the data. Consider the nature of the existing relationships, and the impact of severing them across the entire organization. Consider the impact on the individuals. Start sharing some ideas you might have… one relationship at a time, and identify where opportunity might exist to help these individuals most benefit from some effort before you leave altogether.
“We Get Ready”
By exploring opportunities that you have identified, and shared/evolved with your existing relationships, you can help shift the focus of your departure on to the transition in their work environment. It provides an opportunity to design a professional and appropriate strategy for exiting your current role in a way where you might appreciate the stories that are told long after you are gone.
Now… Time for me to get ready.