Every manager dreads the following words from their subordinates, “can we talk?” The hardest conversations to have as a manager is a direct report leaving the organization unexpectedly or not on an ideal timeline. As you may already know, employees leave managers, not organizations. Those in leadership hold responsibility for all failures and successes. Jocko Willink, former U.S. Navy SEAL said it this way, “Extreme ownership. Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.”
When an employee wants to leave the organization not on your preferred timeline – guess what. You hold accountability for this occurrence. Maybe you hired the wrong person, maybe you hired the right person but the job they were hired for was a wrong fit for their strengths. Perhaps the employee and the job were both wrong. Whatever the reason, you have to fall on the sword and take responsibility for your part and not make the same mistake again. As you can see, there are a lot of things we can do as leaders to minimalize human resource waste. Articles of that nature are readily available, so instead I would like to focus on this situation through the employees’ lens.
BURN THE BOATS
There are some great quotes that we often hear in business and leadership. One of my favorites is “burn the boats”. In other words, to quote a modern day prophet William Smith from East Philly, “There’s no reason to have a plan B because it distracts from plan A.”
There is power and intensity from burning the boats and plan B, to be all in one a singular strategy and decision for our lives and career. This would be my first bit of advice to an employee. Make a decision about the trajectory of your career, and persist intensely on that dream until it is achieved. For instance, say you want to lead operations for an organization and you are committed to excellence in everything you do. However, your boss and your peers are not committed to the same vision. What do you do?
Tell no one, start applying to jobs, and leave the organization. Sound familiar?
While this approach seems silly and dysfunctional, unhappy employees who left organizations due to the environment and their manager make up a third of the 63M workers that left their organizations in 2019. This begs the question, what is the most virtuous way to leave an organization?
RIDING OUT THE COMMITMENT TRAIN
You committed to the organization, you committed to the job, and you committed to your manager. Therefore, it is your responsibility to do everything in your power to make it work, and to not skip town at the first sight of adversity.
Let’s dive back into the example above. You want to be excellent but those around you aren’t committed to that vision. It is critical that we communicate with our coworkers. We have to be unafraid to share our feelings with those around us. If data is justifying your feelings that your manager is allowing a sloppy operation, it is important to share those feelings with your boss. I understand that this can be a scary conversation if it is a toxic environment created by a toxic boss. Often it is far easier to just apply to new jobs and move on without the crucial conversation. If you avoid these conversations, you may be the missing vehicle of grace to aid the business to improve.
Additionally, you may find yourself trapped in these situations continually if you aren’t willing to have these conversations. Toxic people are everywhere! It is part of the frailty of the human condition, so if you aren’t willing to have this conversation now, chances are it is going to haunt you throughout your career. If you have vision for the way the operation is supposed to be structured, then I can’t think of a better person to start making the changes.
Ask Before You Tell
To head down this journey, we first need to have a good relationship with our boss, coworkers, direct reports, or anyone we are hoping to have success with in change management. Hard to say the timing on this, but I know for sure this isn’t going to happen in a couple hours as relationships take time. As the relationship is established, communicate effectively and constructively. To communicate constructively, we start with what we value and what is working, and then and only then, asking why parts of the organization that you see weaknesses in are structured the way they are. After seeking to understand the current structure, then it is best practice to ask if your boss has ever contemplated structuring it to your organizational vision. For the sake of teaching, the absolute opposite way of this approach is walking into your boss’s office, telling her she stinks, her people stink, her processes stink, and then outlining how it should be. If you enjoy being thrown out of offices or fired, this is a great approach to take! Note, just by approaching the conversation in this coaching methodology, it might be a revelatory discussion for you both.
Coaching v. Telling
One of the most eye-opening moments of my MBA was when a professor in organizational behavior showed us a YouTube video (I unfortunately wasn’t able to find/cite) of the power of coaching versus showing. In the video, there are two novice golf students with one master teacher. The teacher takes two approaches to his coaching style. With one student he tells the student what they have to do to make their swing better (the approach that gets you thrown out of the office), and with the second student he solely asks questions leading them to the right swing.
The telling approach has gains but they plateau. The coaching approach continually achieves gains. This management video proves the power of coaching versus telling. It is important to note that these students are novice golfers with zero reason for ego, being instructed by a golf pro. Replace the novice golfers with an experienced boss (and possibly an experienced ego), being told what to do by a subordinate and you have created disaster. You have the strongest probability for interpersonal connection and success in change management via this coaching approach.
Go Out with a Win-Win
Similar to the 17M workers that left voluntarily in 2019, if you have established relationships, worked through a coaching methodology, and still see no interest in changes being made for the better, chances are it is time to leave. So what is the virtuous way to leave an organization? As stated above, the virtuous way to leave an organization is to not leave and to take action to improve the organization. But if you feel you have done that, and nothing is changing for the better, then the next step is to set an ultimatum.
If you have done the relationship and coaching recommendations above, then it shouldn’t be alarming to your boss when you set an ultimatum that unless things change you plan to leave. Chances are they will be thankful you are leaving. You are a beacon of change that they are unwilling to take. In their eyes, it is better that you move on so they can get the right person in your role. Now begins the negotiating process to identify a win-win strategy for you to exit while the organization gets what they need in the transition. Isn’t this so much better for both parties than the surprise two-week notice?
How can an organization possibly replace a tenured employee in a two-week period successfully?
There is also the promotion situation to consider. Perhaps you are ready for a promotion that is not available. Then it’s just a matter of stating you are going to be open to new opportunities. That way when you have to interview, you aren’t breaking into hives while lying about a doctor’s appointment. Additionally, your boss/board should be willing to serve as a reference and testimonial for the work you have accomplished together. This approach is also mutually beneficial as the organization can operationalize life without you and start putting those plans in place while you are still available.
The Emotional Intelligence Piece
As an executive recruiter, I have asked thousands of people for job references. It is shocking the number of times that professionals get anxious when you ask them about their boss serving as a reference for them. I pay close attention to this anxiety. If their apprehension is because they don’t have a good enough relationship with their boss to have this conversation, I perceive a possible lack of emotional intellect and ability to manage relationships. This reminds me of an Abraham Lincoln quote. After honest Abe interviewed a candidate for a post, Lincoln’s feedback was that he didn’t like the candidate’s “face.” It’s not that his nose was too big or he had a weird mole. He didn’t like that this candidate was older than 40 and had not learned how to quiet his facial expressions and put on a business poker face. In the same way, if you are a Director or above, and you still haven’t sharpened your emotional intelligence to perfect relationship management, it is far past time that you learned.
The End of the 2-Week Notice
My dream is that “two-week notices” are destroyed forever. This approach solely favors the employee and is quite selfish, not paying respect or homage to the organization for employing them and taking on their employment risk. By allowing for a mutually beneficial break from an organization, all parties are better off and relationships remain intact. The employer has the ability to better plan for the employees’ exit and the employee should maintain a robust reference listing, never having to shy away from certain references. At the same time, all parties will be heading in the direction they are meant to be headed, by employing a virtuous exit. May we be so blessed.
Written by Chris Gomez
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