Advice & News

July 29, 2019

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

It's the time of year when many people are pulling up stakes and heading off to a new job in a different place, often far from where they established their career foundations and began to build upon them. Moving is difficult under optimal circumstances, but it is much more so when you are going to a new job as well as a new community.

For many, this may be the first move in years or even decades. The last experience lives only in memory. Memory is fickle. Memory deceives. Its half-life is short, and as time passes it becomes even fuzzier -- fuzzy to the point of inaccuracy and even fantasy. How many times have you been at an alumni event and listened to stories of the truly great things that happened to people as students decades ago? Love abounds; reliving the experiences at these gatherings is a way to bring back warm, fuzzy feelings.

Memories of moving recede, blocking out the stress and hassle and leaving only remembrances of the excitement. All too often, departure anxiety is obliterated.

Some of us, especially as we settle in at our first institution and begin to move up the administrative ladder, come to "love the place." I certainly did. Then after a speech to the 50th Reunion Class one spring when I confessed to the alumni there that I, too, had that emotional attachment to their alma mater, a senior colleague pulled me aside and told me bluntly, "you are NOT allowed to love this institution." That's all he said. Then he turned and walked away. I have pondered that advice ever since and here's some thoughts I have had.

We leave institutions for many reasons, but a big one is that opportunity for continued advancement is blocked as the path forward is occupied by people who are not likely to leave. It is best to remember, as my colleague reminded me indirectly, that you may love your institution but, in the end, it will not love you back. Some of your colleagues may regret that you are leaving to take up a more challenging position elsewhere. But as you depart, they are moving on into their future without you.

The transition out of an institution turns out to be highly important to successful career development. You need a strategy on how to do it, not merely for yourself personally but perhaps more importantly for yourself professionally. Career transition out of an institution is as important as career transition into the next one. More on the latter in the future. For now, let's ponder how to leave with grace and integrity even, or maybe especially when you had no real choice to stay.

One of the great questions that are asked in reference checks is this: would you hire this person back if you had a suitable position for them? How you managed your own departure may well determine whether the answer is yes or no. Elaboration beyond that one-word answer is infrequently sought and is even more unlikely if the second option is taken.

Ponder the situation and issues surrounding your decision to leave for a moment and begin with the obvious: don't be or even appear to be overly excited about departing. You may be thrilled and eager to share all the wonderful opportunities that beckon that you could never have here, but people do not really want to hear about them, much less how excited you are to engage them. Your soon-to-be former colleagues are basically not interested in more than a superficial explanation of what your departure will mean to you, so be brief and matter of fact.

The first corollary to this maxim is not to dwell on things that made you want or perhaps even need to leave. Remember, it takes courage to depart and this is a major reason why most folks stay in an institution for a very long time -- a whole career in many cases. Sounding disgruntled and being critical of the institutional world you are leaving is poor form. It can only make people resent you and your success. This is even so when your departure involved a career disappointment. In fact, it may be even more imperative under those circumstances.

The second corollary is also vital. Take some time to do a self-assessment of all you have accomplished at the institution you are leaving. There is much to celebrate and focusing on the more important aspects of those successes will enable you to talk about your departure without putting people off. Mention only these and be gratified that you had the opportunity to do good and useful things, and note specifically that you are grateful for what you learned.

Parenthetically, this will also prepare you for your new institution as this principle is replicable as you arrive there shortly when you are asked the inevitable questions about what your former institution was like as a place to work. Negativity provokes negative reactions. These are never forgotten and will be used against you in the future. Saying something positive and true and then remaining silent is smart career development that only you can provide for yourself.

And besides, in retrospect, it may be the case that this change was the best thing that could ever have happened to your career!