Effective Executive Transitions: Whether Coming or Going, Hold Your Head up High from American Management Association 1/13/2011

I learned early in my life that how you exit an organization is just as important as how you enter. I remember when my dad suddenly lost his job as an executive in New York City. People around my dad expressed how angry they were that after 26 years of dedicated service he was let go so suddenly, and seemingly, for no reason. Yet rather than feeling sorry for himself or getting angry, dad resisted the temptation to lash out. He held his head high and maintained his relationships. About a year after he was let go, he was hired by a different company. The hiring executive was actually the person who had let him go! To make matters even more interesting, the company that hired him bought his previous employer.

I share this story to illustrate the importance of navigating the range of emotions you experience when leaving an organization—whether it’s your decision or not. The world of business is smaller than we think. The way we treat people will either pay dividends or cause us headaches. There are enough challenges in the business world; we have to be careful not to create new ones on our own.

Careers in Transition, LLC, estimates that the average working American will have 3 to 5 careers and 10 to 12 jobs over a lifetime. Let’s identify what you need to do to accelerate successful transitions, whether during onboarding into a new organization or departure from a previous one.

Entering and Leaving an Organization: The Commonalities
Manage Impressions

Entering or exiting organizations are typically the greatest opportunities you have to make an impression, so make sure your impression is a good one. Take the time to outline the three key things you want people to think about you during a transition. Many thought leaders recommend an exercise where you think about what you want people to say when you pass away. I don’t know about you, but I want people to focus on me while I am living rather than when I am dead. What do you want people to think about you today, both when you enter the room and when you leave the room?

Build and Maintain Bridges

I have had the fortune of having conversations with a variety of senior executives who have entered and exited many organizations. There is one thing of which I am certain: relationships matter. Do anything and everything you can to build new relationships and nurture existing ones. Sometimes it’s not just the bridges you build that will connect you to your success, but also the relationships you decide to mend and maintain. The more bridges you build on the way in, the more options you’ll have on the way out. While it takes time and effort, the return on investment is well worth it!

Adjust your Attitude

We can learn a lot of lessons from sports psychology. A positive mental attitude differentiates the winners from the losers. The situation does not determine your mindset, you do. People can sense confidence and a positive attitude. Keeping yourself optimistic, resilient, and hopeful creates opportunities and buffers the impact of challenging situations. Feel what you need to feel, think what you need to think, and, at the same time, communicate a “can do” attitude.

Learn the Landscape

In a previous AMA article I outlined the key ingredients of Executive Emotional Intelligence (EEI). The core functions of EEI are reading yourself, your people, and your situation so you can effectively lead yourself, your people, and your situation.

Upon entering and exiting an organization you need to be able to understand how your thoughts and emotions are influencing your behavior and the perceptions of others. One of the most challenging, and also one of the most critical, things to do in a transition is to act based on strategy rather than reaction. Emotions run high during transitions, and we experience feelings that we associate with the positive and the negative. The trick is to lead your emotions and not have them lead you.

Now that we’ve outlined the factors that arriving and leaving have in common, let’s get more specific and look at each transition individually.

Entering an Organization—What to Be:

Collaborative—Teamwork is contagious and yields dividends. Early on, find opportunities to help your colleagues. Strive to become known as someone who “plays well with others.”

Credible—The more credibility you have the more you can accomplish through others. You can build your credibility by following through on commitments, demonstrating a genuine concern for others, showing your dedication to the organization, and acting with integrity.

Competent—The ability to perform at your job is essential. The adage “fake it till you make it” is not what you want to practice early on in the transition. Now is the time to do what you can to create a positive image of competence. In the 1920s Edward Thorndike explained that people tend to view each other in strictly positive or negative terms. So demonstrate your competence early to create a positive bias.

What to do:

Collaborate: Familiarize yourself with the culture of your new organization and become known as a teammate. In my experience, people who work well with others, demonstrate organizational commitment, and take action to develop other people have an accelerated career path. Have a team mindset and support others’ initiatives.

Build Credibility: Leverage the credibility of others.  Early on in my consulting career I had a challenging time finding new clients in certain markets or geographic locations. I did not have credibility based on my work experience (as a general partner at a private equity firm) or where I grew up (attending a certain high school in Philadelphia). A key strategy for my integration was to create mutually beneficial professional relationships with credible people and organizations. Once I started partnering with them other people noticed and began perceiving me as credible.

Demonstrate Competence: Identify and achieve early wins based on your areas of expertise. Leverage your strengths and identify two to three achievable results that are important to your manager and key stakeholders. Focus on the value you can add while demonstrating your desire to learn and grow.

Exiting an Organization—What to be:

Confident—There is no substitute for being sure of yourself and your ability. Having a sense of confidence is the most attractive characteristic for any person, regardless of their profession. On the flip side, a lack of confidence can be sensed by the people around you and is a strong predictor of tough times to come.

Cordial—Holding your head high especially in tough transitions is a sign of strength and resilience. Your ability to be respectful of the organization and people you are leaving will pave a smoother path for you.

Complimentary—Talk neutrally or positively about the people and organization you are leaving. You don’t need to sing the praises of people or organizations you don’t believe in, but don’t bash them; it shifts the focus from the value you bring to the complaints you have.

What to do:

Be Confident: Speak and act in ways that show your confidence. Let people know that you are looking forward to new opportunities and moving forward. A key aspect of confidence is self-talk. The more you focus on being positive through your inner dialogue the more you can build yourself up and instill confidence others. It becomes a cycle of confidence rather than self-defeating thoughts. It’s all too easy to lose confidence, especially during tough transitions. Act like someone who is ready to tackle the next challenge.

Be Cordial: Take the high road. Avoid feeling slighted or wanting to get back at people who may not have supported you. Use any negativity you may have as fuel for your growth and success.

Give Compliments: What you say to others can be as important as what you have accomplished. Here are some things to say that will help you as you leave an organization:
• I appreciate the opportunity I have had to work with this organization.
• I learned a lot here.
• I’m looking forward to my next opportunity and challenge.
• I’m confident I will be able to build upon my time with you.

The Bottom Line

Your reputation is as important as your accomplishments. Focus on building relationships, being resourceful, and facilitating mutual respect. There will be a lot of noise during transitions. Your job will be to know what to block out, what to listen to, and what to say. Energy spent on growth and moving forward will help you do just that.

Best of luck in your journey. You will succeed if concentrate on the “four Ps” : passion, patience, a plan, and persistence!