Will you know when it is your time to leave and how to do so gracefully?

the end1Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. For the last few years, we’ve looked at posts from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applied his organizational development messages to the non-profit community. For the foreseeable future, John is taking a break from blogging and our Friday organizational development blog series will morph into something else. Stay tuned!

In this week’s post titled “Your Stage Now,” John announces to the world that he needs a break from blogging. He simply tells us that he is going on hiatus, and he isn’t sure if and when he will start-up again. In the meantime, he invites everyone to use his blog platform to share their organizational development stories.

After shaking off the suddenness of this announcement, John’s post reminded me of a time when I was an executive director working for a local non-profit organization. During that time, it wasn’t uncommon for the following three questions to visit me like the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future:

  1. Will this board meeting be my last? Is this the meeting when my board will ask me to leave?
  2. Will I know when it is time for me to go? Will I be able to leave or will I be asked to leave?
  3. When it is my time to go, will I be able to fade from the stage with grace?

Yes, those six years of my life were filled with anxiety and stress. No, I was not fired. In fact, I like to think I did a nice job. I did leave on my terms, and I think I left gracefully.

John’s post this morning brought all of those memories flooding back mostly because he exited the stage with class, dignity and grace. His post also reminded me of how many non-profit professionals (and even board volunteers) I’ve seen throughout the years who are completely and utterly unprepared for this moment. It is as if they never contemplated the possibility and it crept up on them like a stealthy cat.

the end2Here are just a few examples of what those situations looked like:

  • The board terminating their executive director due to performance issues.
  • The non-profit professional deciding it was time for a change, which usually meant they were leaving for greener pastures (or so they thought).
  • The executive director resigning because a BIG issue was about to bite them in the butt, and they would rather pull the pin on the grenade instead of being shot by the board.
  • The fundraising professional being squeezed out as a result of a new boss being hired with new priorities in the middle of a re-org and shake-up.
  • A non-profit professional suddenly realizing that it is time to retire and move into their golden years.
  • A board president quitting suddenly because their child is no longer involved in the agency.

Upon leaving the stage, I’ve seen lots of good and lots of bad. I’m sure you have, too, Sometimes people just run away and hide. Other times, I’ve seen the big hook used to pull that person off of the stage. The following are just a few things that I’ve seen and heard that make me cringe:

  • I’ve heard executive directors and fundraising professionals assuring donors, volunteers and board members that everything will be OK after they leave. (This feels pretentious and always leaves me wondering if they have doubts that everything is going to actually be OK.)
  • I’ve heard bad mouthing and airing of grievances. (This looks cowardly and spiteful.)
  • I’ve seen people simply take their hands off of the wheel in their final days and weeks on the job. (This looks reckless.)

You’re probably thinking that in these situations those were “bad people“. The reality is that I’ve seen both poor professionals and iconic professionals do things like this. I’ve also seen volunteers who I revere accidentally step into some of these pitfalls.

the end3The definition of the word “grace” according to a Google search is: “simple elegance or refinement of movement“.

The previous bullet points are not good examples of “grace“. However, when I think about myself, I know that I am not a naturally graceful person, which is probably why I obsessed about “the end” and felt the need to think through and plan my exit. (Yes, I recognize that I have control issues and I am working with my counselor to address this. LOL!)

While I encourage you to not obsess (like I did) over what the end will look like, I think it is healthy to contemplate it from time-to-time. And when the end does finally come, I think it is responsible to put a thoughtful plan in place to ensure a graceful exit with a smooth transition.

The following are just a variety of different links and resource that I think you might find useful:

Do you have any tips or tricks for how to exit the big stage with grace? Do you have a story about a fellow co-worker or board volunteer who left in a less than perfect way? If so, what could they have done differently to make it a better departure? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences. We can all learn from each other.

On a personal note, I want to thank John Greco for providing the DonorDreams blog readers with countless “Organizational Development Fridays” over the years. I wish him a restful break and hope he comes back to the blogosphere when he is ready because the world is better place when he is blogging and sharing his perspective on how to grow our organizational capacity and manage change.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC

About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on October 25, 2013, in leadership, organizational development, Planning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi Erik,
    Again I applaud your timing and though provoking subject matter. Sadly, I have contemplated (obsessed) over the end for quite some time. After watching an incompetent executive committee leave an equally incompetent executive director in place for too long then allow her to stay while they conduct a search for a new ED, I am the one faced with how to leave with grace. What happens when they eliminate the development position yet asks you to stay to “transition” the very donors who have grown to trust your judgement about the organization? I was hoping one of your sage readers would have a great suggestion.

    • Beth … Thanks for your comment and your class. Unfortunately, the answers you seek can only be found within. I suspect that you’ve already concluded that when your position is eliminated and you’re asked to stay on for a short time for whatever reason, then you stay on, do as you’re asked, and smile your way through the experience. It is the classy albeit hard thing to do.

      While you’re transitioning, my suggestion is that you engage in self reflection about you time with this agency by thinking about these questions:

      * what are you most proud about your time at this agency?
      * what would you do differently if you had a chance?
      * how will these experiences carryover into your next job?
      * where are you on your career path? Are you where you want to be? What is your next move?

      I hope this helps. Good luck and please remain in touch with all of us at this blog.

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