“If I die tomorrow, I want the only thing for people to say is, ‘Gosh, I really miss Ronne’s smile—and her cupcakes.’” I’ve shared that sentiment in meetings with leaders and with my own employees over the years. And I mean it.
While I have no desire (or plan) to die tomorrow, I know full well that things change and the position I have now is likely not the position I’ll have forever. Now, it wasn’t always that way. I remember wanting to map out the fine details of my career path when I was in my 20s. I thought I would stay in the same industry and gracefully climb up the ladder of success. But roads are rarely linear, and I discovered that vibrant career paths include switchbacks, construction zones, and yes – even a broken rung or two.
I can still remember the day I walked into my boss’ office years ago and told him I had been recruited to be part of a new division at a global corporation. Rather than cheering for me, he promptly escorted me to a conference room, where he invited my peers to deride me for leaving their company. I made a pledge that day to never treat those I work with the way I had been treated.
And so, if I could offer that 25-year old any career advice, it would be this: plan well for your departure. And if you are in a leadership role, give your employees the liberty to plan well for theirs.
You might be thinking, “My career is just launching, and I’m going nowhere but UP. Why should I even consider planning my departure?” Consider this: a study by LinkedIn says the average adult now changes jobs FOUR TIMES by the age of 32. And those jobs aren’t always within the same organization. Says Guy Burger, LinkedIn economist who analyzed the career paths of three million college graduates:
“A college degree used to slot you into a 40-year career. Now it’s just an entry-level point to your first job.”
I believe that as both employees and leaders we are called to do that—to exhort and encourage and provide whatever wisdom we can —no matter how short or long our season is. And if we are people of faith, it’s imperative that we set the “leave a place – and its people – better than you found them” example for others to follow. Philippians 2:1-4 reminds us: “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”
That’s right. One of the best things we can do as we journey on our own career paths is to help others get ahead, set others up well for success, and leave our organizations in a better place than when we found them. Being strategic about planning our own departures – and helping others plan theirs – is a great way to do this.
Some of my methods may be a little unconventional, and I’ve had more than one old-school manager give me horrified looks when I say I help my employees with their exit strategy and invite them into mine. But I don’t believe that talking about your next chapter means you’ve stopped living in this one—in fact, I’ve found just the opposite to be true.
When employees are allowed to dream about what the future might hold, they work harder in the present so they are truly ready to step into that future when it arrives.
And when employees feel safe to dream around their leaders, their dedication and loyalty increases.
So, how do you do it? How do you plan now for a departure that might be months or years down the road? Here are a few things I’ve found to be extremely valuable as a leader. If you aren’t in a leadership role yet, tuck these ideas away – or use them as an opportunity to encourage greater dialogue within your business or organization. I’ve even included a few tips for you at the end of each recommendation.
1. Invite employees into your processes.
As a leader, don’t simply tell employees what to do, but allow them to be part of the decision-making process of your ministry or organization. As much as I can, I include employees in on financial decisions, ask them their opinion on what to do in times of conflict or crisis, and ask them to dream big about where we as a team and where our ministry should be going.
Not a leader yet? That’s OK. Take notes of what your job entails – not just the hard skills, but also the relational skills necessary to get work done well. Note how decisions are made, and how to be part of the process.
2. Make it easy for employees to share their long-term goals.
Create a safe, trusting, and fully confidential environment where dreams can be shared—and then support those dreams even if they don’t include your ministry or organization. Don’t be afraid of losing great people; rather, be the one that encourages your great people to become leaders of great people.
Not a supervisor? That’s OK. Get to know your supervisors and ask for their wise counsel. Nurture an environment where long-term goals and dreams may be shared.
3. Assist employees in developing both technical and relational skills so they will have a stronger opportunity for promotion and growth.
I love to have my employees lead projects, represent our team or our ministry at large events, or take the lead on teaching others new ways of doing things.
Not in management? That’s OK. Ask to be part of projects – even as an observer. Get involved in the life of your organization to better understand its personality and to inform your future career plans.
4. Develop personal bench strength.
Be sure someone knows enough about the specific tasks you do that those tasks may be delegated in that interim period between your departure and someone else’s arrival. Give your employees an opportunity to shine.
Not the one in charge? That’s OK. Take advantage of cross-training programs within your organization, develop a good “imperatives” list for your own job that would help someone step in if you need to step away.
5. Don’t outstay your welcome or force your employees to outstay theirs.
As someone wise once told me, “Jesus loves your staff more than you do.” Be willing to say “yes” to the next thing God has for you, and be willing to cheer for that employee who wants to say “yes” too.
Want to see what the next welcome might look like? Take a pen and paper and write a short news article about yourself – maybe something Time Magazine might write about the future you someday. What would it say? Where will you have been, what will you have done, and what lasting impression will you have made on people. Don’t be afraid to dream. And don’t be afraid to say, YES!”