When The Time To Leave A Major Role Comes, Here’s How To Do It Right

A least a few times in life, each of us needs to let go of a role that we have built and cherished for many years. This happens when we finish a major assignment, get pushed out, retire, change careers, or sell a business we have worked long and hard to build.

People often struggle letting go of a major work role. You have probably spent more of your waking hours on your job than any other aspect of life, including family. Work is fundamental to identity: e.g., cocktail introductions quickly turn to the question, “What do you do?” Work provides status, financial security, intellectual stimulation and companionship. It creates an often-comfortable routine. And it simply fills time.

However, change can be a good thing. The skill set, perspective, experience, and energy a new person brings to a company often accelerates progress and cracks long-standing problems. We get stale when we do the same thing for a long time: stuck in our ways, our beliefs, and our feelings about the situation and the people. An old boss, when pitching people to take new roles, liked to say, “People [like plants] need to be “repotted” periodically so they can continue to grow”. A friend has led a marvelously rich life spanning five careers: researcher, entrepreneur, journalist, investor, and now professor.

How do you know when the time to let go has come? Sometimes it’s imposed by events, but often not. Here are the signs. You’ve plateaued in your work and the skills and behaviors needed to get to the next level are not personal growth to which you aspire. Your business is changing fundamentally in a way you can’t embrace. The outlook for next year is doing for the 26th time what you’ve done 25 times before. Most important, as a friend recently put it, when you get up in the morning to go to work, you feel no enthusiasm for the job, and you realize you’ve felt this way for a long time.

If so, the time for change as come. For practical reasons, some delay and preparation may be needed before you pull the trigger. It’s not too soon to design the next era of your career and life, however, and to think through your transition.

Quit while you are ahead. It’s tempting to ride success as long as possible, holding on to the trappings and the income. If you ride it well past the peak, however, you erode the equity you have built, both money and reputation, and the career momentum that can propel you into a new role on favorable terms. In my experience, the smartest people quit near the peak.

Respect the role that you are leaving. If the exit process is antagonistic or disappointing, one can be tempted to scorch some earth. That’s a mistake for multiple reasons, of which the most important is: you’re leaving behind something you built, and you want it to be successful because it’s part of your history and you can be proud of what you accomplished there.

Develop a new opportunity that is something you truly want to do. Then your transition will focus on the potential of the new opportunity, not the benefits of the role you are leaving behind. You probably have a list of things you have always wanted to do. Look for a way to make one of those real.

Go ahead and try something different. You probably have talents and sources of satisfaction you have never explored. I’ve made a couple of big jumps in my career and discovered sources of satisfaction, like running a small business, which had no parallel in my previous experience.

Bear in mind that life is finite. At reunions, my university has a parade of alumni/alumnae through the campus, starting with the earliest class, a few old men riding golf carts, and working back to the young and lusty new graduates. This parade is a time machine that shows us our future: fewer people as the classes get older, and how healthy they look. We’re given a finite and uncertain amount of time. If there are things you really want to do, best to get about them.

Life is never fun when you are stuck in a rut, including a well-paid rut. There is always opportunity for satisfaction in learning new things, meeting new people, and having new experiences. Transition is the time when we embrace this.

First posted @ blogs.forbes.com/toddhixon on August 7, 2017.