Exit Strategies

Turn out the lights -- this job is over! But before you head off to make a fresh start, you need to make a smart finish. Quitting right can be a great career move. Meet five people who learned how to quit smart.

"I quit!" Admit it: Those two simple words are on your mind and maybe even the tip of your tongue at least some of the time. And apparently you're not alone. According to a recent poll conducted by CareerPath.com, 40% of the 1,400 workers surveyed said that they planned to change jobs within a year. In these days of megamergers and startup mania, we'd be less than honest if we said that we rarely think about taking off.

Trouble is, although we spend a lot of time planning our next move, we rarely think about an exit strategy for the job that we'll be leaving. Yet the way we leave speaks volumes about the way we value our work, our colleagues, and our reputations.

"Your last impression is almost as important as your first," says Mark Oldman, 31, cofounder of Vault.com Inc., an online career-information site. "It's important to leave behind an impeccable record, because it's a small world and you never know whether you'll work with -- or for -- some of the same people again."

Mary Lawton's first exit wasn't her best. Lawton was just 26 years old when she quit as plant manager at AMP Inc., an electrical-devices manufacturer based in Greensboro, North Carolina. She'd planned to take two weeks to wrap up her work and say goodbye to her coworkers. But her boss told her to leave on the very day that she gave notice.

Lawton was shocked. She didn't even have time to clean out her desk. "It looked as if I'd quit abruptly, and that's not who I am," says Lawton, now 40 and a vice president of a division of Sara Lee Corp. Looking back at the way she left AMP, she says she should have anticipated the company's reaction, given that the plant made a proprietary product.

Lawton's story shows that there's no one right way to go. Each of us must deal with different cultures, different job constraints, different bosses. The key is to plan a strategy that's right for you. You can, however, learn from others. That's why we found five talented people who left their jobs under various circumstances and who were willing to pass on their experiences. Remember: Even when you're leaving on a high, you still need to exit gracefully.

Scene One: When you're leaving and you don't have another job lined up

Protagonist: Maxine Clark, 51, formerly president of retail chain Payless ShoeSource Inc.; now chief executive bear of Build-A-Bear Workshops LLC.

Maxine Clark is a rarity. In an age when spending two years at the same job makes you a veteran, she spent nearly 25 years at the same company, May Department Stores Co. Although the upper echelons of retailing are typically male dominated, she held an enviable spot as president of Payless ShoeSource, which was at the time a $2.3 billion chain of 4,500 stores and a division of May. By 1995, however, Clark felt "financially full but psychologically unfulfilled."

Shoe retailing was a mature business. Squeezing growth from such a saturated market meant that Clark dealt more with numbers than with people. She hungered to work directly with the people she cared about -- the frontline workers and the customers whose business supported the stores. "My ability to connect with people wasn't being tapped," she says. "I wanted a place where I could run the show but also be in the stores, making retailing fun again."

Clark knew it was time to go, and she took a radical step: In the fall of 1995, she shared her intentions with her superiors -- even though she didn't have another job lined up.

But the executives at May were her friends and mentors, not just her bosses. "They'd known me since I was a kid out of college," she says. "I had to be honest with them." By January 1996, the company had found a replacement for her, enabling a smooth transition. Their only request: Don't go to a competitor.

That wasn't an issue, because Clark had outgrown the shoe business. The time had come to build her own company. So, with no specific plan in hand, she left a high-six-figure salary and a big chunk of prestige. But she protected herself by harnessing her network of contacts. She also continued to serve on several corporate boards, and she stayed in the retail loop by speaking at industry conferences and being interviewed regularly for trade magazines.

Additionally, she made sure that she was financially secure. Her mortgage was paid off. She wasn't in debt. She didn't have children. In fact, her financial independence was her "no-excuses motivation" to strike out on her own. Now she runs Build-A-Bear Workshops, a retail chain that allows kids to buy and make teddy bears in stores and online.

Clark earns just a fraction of her former salary. But she has never regretted her risky departure. "The job didn't feel right, and I had to move on," she says. "I couldn't let myself feel trapped, just because I didn't have another job lined up."

Coordinates: Maxine Clark, maxine@buildabear.com

Scene Two: When you want to go -- but your company wants you to stay

Protagonist: Dawn White, 41, formerly a senior engineer at Ford Motor Co.; now an entrepreneur-in-residence at North Coast Technology Investors LP.

What are the right reasons to leave a job? When is the right time? And is there any way that a less-than-ideal job situation can help you chart a better career path?

Those questions plagued Dawn White for more than 18 months while she was at Ford. By all counts, White, a materials engineer, had a great job. She worked in Ford's research lab, where she could freely explore and suggest new ideas for improving production. Yet her projects, which included finding ways to reduce the cost and length of time to produce auto-body tools, moved slowly. Her research was underfunded. And her proposals generated little feedback from Ford's senior people. From White's viewpoint, Ford didn't move fast enough.

"I had to admit to myself that I fundamentally wasn't suited to the organization. Ford is large and sluggish, and I wanted to work with a company that was small and nimble. I wanted to make an impact."

White knew it was time to move on. She also knew that in a world where projects are king, her project results would be her legacy at Ford. Having invested untold hours in her work, she didn't want her research to die after she left. So, over a six-month period, she set clearly articulated milestones and tracked her team's progress, building a platform from which she could leave "with honor." She also identified potential successors, essentially preparing her team for her departure -- without them knowing it.

But her farewell didn't play out the way that she had planned. Her boss was spending most of his time in Germany, so she booked a meeting with him during one of his U.S. visits. But, at the last minute, unaware of White's agenda, he canceled. Worse, he rescheduled the meeting as a videoconference from his office in Germany.

So, on a Monday morning, White found herself staring at the instrument of her departure: a PictureTel video camera. Her boss kicked off the conversation by asking about her project. She quickly stopped him and announced, " 'We need to talk about something else: I quit.' Four anxiety-inducing seconds later, he popped forward in his chair and said, 'Oh!' It was horrible -- like talking through a tank of molasses."

Although that meeting was pretty unpleasant, other Ford managers tried to woo her with counteroffers. "They'd say, 'Let's find the kind of job that would make you stay,' which was tough to turn down." But the job at North Coast Technology Investors presented White with a unique opportunity: the chance to work at a boutique venture-capital firm, developing her own ideas and helping its partners identify investment opportunities in the materials sciences and in manufacturing technology.

"It would have been easy to stay at Ford," White concludes. "But I'd already turned down other chances to work at small, fast-moving companies. I couldn't let another opportunity slip by."

Coordinates: Dawn White, dawn@northcoastvc.com

Scene Three: When you're leaving to work for yourself

Protagonist: Nayan Patel, 28, formerly a producer at Yahoo!; now co-founder, OneCenterPlaza (www.onecenterplaza.com).

What job is worth turning down $10 million for? For Nayan Patel, it was the chance to work for himself. Patel, a producer at Yahoo!, stood to gain $10 million in stock options if he stayed put until May 2000, when his options would be fully vested. But the adrenaline to start his own business was pumping through his veins too swiftly. "Once the switch to do my own thing flipped on, I had to leave," he says. "I just couldn't wait around for the money to kick in."

Let's not kid ourselves: Money is a big deal. To some, it's the biggest deal of all. But Patel had already made good money from stock options that had previously vested. And in these times, when investors are frantically chasing after the Next Big Thing, Patel knew that his startup wouldn't leave him starving. So he asked himself, How much is enough? He decided that an additional $10 million shouldn't keep him from taking his great leap forward.

Patel's family, however, thought he was nuts. He had already rocked the boat in 1996, when he left IBM for Yahoo! His father and uncle were lifers at Big Blue, which had funded Patel's college education. Just when his family had finally begun to see the merits of his working at Yahoo!, whose market value was nearly half that of IBM, Patel had decided to shift gears yet again.

Risk did not come easily to Patel. As an engineer, he was prone to decision making by matrix, rather than by instinct. Only one other person from Yahoo!'s core group of early hires had left to start a company. But since 1997, Patel and four friends have run the Round Zero forum, a roundtable discussion group that focuses on entrepreneurship. The forum started with the five founders chatting at Il Fornaio, the legendary Palo Alto restaurant where many a Silicon Valley business plan has been scribbled. Now, the forum attracts nearly 100 people each month. "Round Zero was sort of a metastartup for the five of us," says Patel. "It inspired me to attempt my own startup."

Patel had often flirted with the notion of declaring his free agency. But he shied away from it, thinking he wasn't ready. But by last November, he felt the pieces were in place. He had negotiated business-development deals for Yahoo! Classifieds, and arranged distribution deals for all Yahoo! products and services. He had watched Yahoo!'s meteoric growth -- to more than 2,000 people from a staff of merely 60 -- and he saw how the enterprise acquired and integrated companies. What's more, Round Zero had put him in contact with venture capitalists and investment bankers. He felt ready to call the shots.

But despite his desire to start something quickly, he didn't forget that a finish must come first. In all likelihood, some of his coworkers and business partners at Yahoo! would become his clients and colleagues. So here's what he did to protect his reputation: He gave one month's notice. In that time, he helped hire his successor. He drew up a road map for the client relationships that he had developed. And he shared his best guesses about where those relationships could lead.

"My team had just created a new group within Yahoo! and was relying on me for guidance, so I knew that two weeks' notice wasn't sufficient," Patel says. "I had been really happy at Yahoo!, and it was important for me to leave the right way."

Still, Patel doesn't feel as though he's leaving Yahoo! too far behind. He says he's now a part of what Yahoo! represents -- a spirit of entrepreneurship. He sits in the Spanish-style courtyard of Stanford University, a breeding ground for many of Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial successes, and wonders if the online-service company that he is building will one day be part of the Valley's business lore. But he had to start the Valley way: by donning his programming hat once again and writing code until 2 AM.

Coordinates: Nayan Patel, nayan.patel@onecenterplaza.com

Scene Four: When leaving threatens your hard-won business relationships

Protagonist: Patrick Lin, 34, formerly a principal at Robertson Stephens Inc.; now a managing director at E*Offering Corp.

In the cutthroat world of institutional investing, it's easy to burn bridges. The real test is whether you can leave and still keep those bridges standing.

Patrick Lin was one level away from becoming managing director at Robertson Stephens, a San Francisco-based investment bank that has led IPOs for such hot dotcoms as Egreetings and MapQuest. Lin had also spent several years independently coaching and advising startups, remaining on the sidelines instead of jumping into the game. He liked being the outsider, but he also wanted to experience the rush of being on the inside of a startup. "The world is changing, and I didn't want to have one role -- as a banker or a sales manager," he says. "I'm a coach and a relationship manager too."

Last February, Lin received a call from a managing director of E*Offering (which was at the time E*Trade's new Internet-investment group). Would he be interested in opening E*Offering's San Francisco office? Lin quickly realized that this was the opportunity he had been looking for. "My definition of failure," he explains, "is 'not learning.' I knew that having a chance to work at a new venture like E*Offering was what I needed."

He didn't consider E*Offering a competitor, but he realized that some of his current colleagues might. Given the confidential nature of major-league investing, he decided to leave immediately -- on the day that his new contract was finalized. Trouble was, his bosses weren't in the office that day. So Lin wrote a two-sentence resignation letter and left a voice mail saying that his decision wasn't personal. "Leaving abruptly was not the way I had planned to handle it."

That afternoon, Lin opened up shop for E*Offering in a 2,000-square-foot office, a far cry from the plush digs he had enjoyed that very morning. He bought a CompUSA fax printer, a Radio Shack phone, and some casual clothing. After all, a one-man office is pretty informal.

In the competitive world of investing, you make your break quick and clean. But you don't sever ties forever. When his former boss returned, Lin explained his decision. He reiterated that he valued his relationships at Robertson Stephens and was committed to maintaining them -- and left it at that. No sense in overpromising and underdelivering. But then Lin proved that he meant what he'd said. He updated his institutional-sales team on his client relationships, and he introduced his former clients to the colleagues at Robertson who would be taking over for him.

But he didn't stop there. Lin spent his first nine months at E*Offering demonstrating to his former colleagues that he considered them partners, not competitors: He introduced them to click2asia.com, an online portal for people interested in Asia. As a result, Robertson put some venture capital into that company. Similarly, Lin introduced Robertson to XUMA.com, a startup that was heading toward IPO.

If Lin could replay his departure, he would have met directly with his team. "I should have shown people that I was leaving only because I got an offer that was too good to refuse." Indeed, Lin got what he wanted -- the best of both worlds. One new title on his E*Offering business card says so: "player-coach."

Coordinates: Patrick Lin, plin@eoffering.com

Scene Five: When you're leaving for the wrong reasons

Protagonist: Wilford Williams, 55, formerly HR director of operations and technology at BankBoston Corp.; now HR business partner for global services at FleetBoston Financial Corp.

When BankBoston merged with Fleet Financial Group this past October, Wilford Williams believed that he'd been left on the sidelines. He had worked at BankBoston for four years. Most recently, he was reporting directly to the executive vice president of human resources. But, as often happens in mergers, a new executive did some reassigning. Williams found himself reporting to someone who was a step removed from the executive suite. He feared that the talent market would view this new assignment as a demotion. "I felt that I was passed over," he says.

In the flurry of the reorganization, no one had bothered to tell Williams what came next. And his emotions took over. "If they didn't think they needed to explain things to me, I thought that I didn't need to stay."

Last November, Williams marched into the office of the new executive vice president of HR and announced that he was quitting. He concedes that he made a rash decision. But the executive never lost her cool and campaigned to keep Williams on -- not by offering a higher salary or a retention bonus, but by explaining that Williams would play a critical role in the company's future. Then, to his surprise, BankBoston president Charles Gifford met with him. They talked about how the bank "needed someone who understood the partnership between human resources and the business," Williams recalls. Half an hour later, he realized that he'd made a mistake and reversed his decision.

Williams had violated the cardinal rule of quitting: When you give notice, don't go back on your decision -- just go. Yet he gave notice and stayed, proving that in the real world, you must sometimes make up your own rules. "I let myself get caught up in the emotion of the merger," he says. "I realized that I was running away, and that's the worst reason to leave a company."

So, how do you reenlist in a company after you've given notice? By never looking back. Williams threw himself into his work. He feels back in the flow, and anticipates many exciting opportunities for him and his company. "Now that I see the work that needs to be done, I have no regrets."

Coordinates: Wilford Williams, wjwilliams@bkb.com

Rekha Balu (rbalu@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

Action Item: Vent Here

You've had a bad day at work. You're not ready to quit, but you sure need to blow off some steam. Well, you can live vicariously through i-resign.com, a UK-based site that has spoof resignations in categories like the "Gloat" and the "Stab in the Back." But the site isn't all a farce. If you're unsure how to handle broken contracts or unclaimed bonuses, you can link to government and legal advisers in the United States and in the UK. And if you do become unemployed, the site offers resources for handling your pension and finances.

Coordinates: i-resign.com, (www.i-resign.com)

Sidebar: End Game

Even the most poised among us sometimes turn into blithering idiots when uttering these two memorable words: "I quit."

Nancy Badore, 53, a career consultant in Dearborn, Michigan and a former director of Ford's executive development center, says that you'll have a better chance of keeping your equanimity if you map out an exit strategy -- and use it.

Decide when to go public.

"You've got an offer. Deciding whether to take it depends in part on whether you've got a bright future at your present company. In that case, the only way to find out is to have a conversation with the senior people at your company -- but only if you trust them. If you want different job responsibilities, give your employer a real chance to meet your needs. And if you don't trust your boss? Then you already know what to do."

Anticipate the inevitable question: Why?

"When you give notice, expect that your company's senior people will want to know your reasons for leaving. Keep your answer brief and professional. Discuss the opportunity, but don't gloat over your good fortune. And never compare the two jobs. The goal is to protect your reputation and to leave people feeling good about your tenure."

Schedule a transition plan.

"Once you've given notice, help your project team make a smooth transition. Discuss constructively what worked for you in your old job and what didn't, so people can make improvements for your successor. Your last impression will be a good one if you make life easier for others when you leave."

Coordinates: Nancy Badore, nbadore@aol.com

Sidebar: Quit Quiz

The way that we react to an employee's departure speaks volumes about the way that we lead, says Marilyn Moats Kennedy, 56, managing partner at Career Strategies, a consultancy in Wilmette, Illinois. Kennedy has identified three common scenarios. You're the boss: How should you respond?

1. Your star player, whom you'd considered promoting, is quitting. Do you:

A. Make a counteroffer, letting her know about the future promotion?
B. Give her the cold shoulder?
C. Say you're disappointed, and that the door is always open for her return?

Answer: C. If your company is the right fit and you've let her know that she's valued, she might change her mind. At the least, she'll be an ally after she's left.

2. You're close to firing your team's slacker. Now you hear that he's going to another company. Do you:

A. Say, "Thank goodness, because I was going to fire you"?
B. Breathe a sigh of relief, and politely ask him to leave immediately?
C. Say you can't give him a reference?

Answer: B. Hand him a brief reference letter, detailing only his length of employment and job titles. Getting him to leave quickly is best for the team.

3. Several employees leave your group within six months. Do you:

A. Give raises to the rest of the team?
B. Replay scenarios that you could have handled differently?
C. Rotate employees into different jobs?

Answer: C. People often leave because they feel that their skills are overlooked. Focus on redistributing the work.

Coordinates: Marilyn Moats Kennedy, mmkcareer@aol.com

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