Making a Gracious Exit

Dean sat quietly tapping his foot under his desk while the rest of the office buzzed with rumor at the sight of Dean’s boss receiving a surprise visit from HR on a random Monday. He didn’t like surprises and was inclined to assume the worst. After only two months of working at this non-profit organization, Dean wasn’t sure what to expect.

When Catherine half smiled and said everything was going to be okay, Dean took half a breath but continued his internal panic. She insisted nothing was wrong as she gathered her things to make an on-time departure from the office. Dean walked out with her hoping to get the real story in the parking lot.

It hit him like a hammer when Catherine told him quietly, not breaking her smile, that she was asked to resign. Her face said everything was fine, but how could it be, Dean thought. He didn’t really hear anything she said after that…something about relax and we’ll talk more in the morning. Dean didn’t feel comfortable with this situation at all; he wasn’t sure he wanted to come back in the morning.

Catherine’s mind swirled the whole way home, but she was determined to face the situation with calm resolve. She hired Dean two months earlier because she needed his help, and she knew this organization presented many options for Dean’s career going forward. During that time, she worked to bring him up to speed and prepare him to take flight within the organization. She knew he would be a big help to her department, a department of one, and she also wanted to see him succeed in his own right and help her train his replacement one day soon.

The next day, Catherine was prepared to lead her intrepid staff of one through a calm transition. After reading the feverish email Dean wrote her the night before about how she was the only boss he ever wanted to work for and how he was willing to fight for her to her superiors, Catherine knew she would have to work hard to manage emotions and focus on the transition.

In the following days, Catherine instructed and comforted Dean in his new role. At least nine times a day she reminded him to breathe. She gave him access to every password, document, and email he would need to carry on without her daily instruction. They worked together to solidify and document processes Dean would continue in his new role. The documentation provided him a road map.

Meanwhile, Catherine lobbied the leadership to position Dean for his greatest chance for success in her absence. She carefully recommended the projects Dean should continue and the ones that should be handled by someone else. It became clear that she was not going to be replaced exactly, and the leadership would try to get Dean to do everything she had done. That was impossible and a recipe for Dean’s demise, as well.

Catherine found the most organized leader in the organization and attempted to recruit him as Dean’s new boss. In the end, she was not able to make that happen because of other forces in play. But, he did agree to be Dean’s mentor and promised Catherine he would actively help Dean move forward and protect him the way Catherine did.

Dean offered support in Catherine’s hurried job search, which she graciously accepted. But Catherine always brought the focus back to wrapping up her current job and getting Dean ready for the transition. She knew that if she appeared emotional about her own situation, he would lose hope of settling himself into his new role.

To make the transition easier, Catherine reached out to one staff member she remembered who had had a difficult time at the beginning of his employment. There were several times when Catherine had assured him he would be okay if he just held on a little longer and kept doing what he knew was right. Sure enough, his troubles ended one day with an email announcing some leadership changes, and he became more confident and valued in his position.

Catherine told him that Dean had some insecurities about his place on the team and he wasn’t sure who to trust. She asked him to let Dean know that he had similar feelings in the beginning, too. At Catherine’s request, he agreed to reach out to Dean, be his friend, and welcome him to the team.

When it came time for Catherine to transition out, Dean was still not sure he wanted to go forward. He was given a five-week plan and a contingency plan if that didn’t work, but he was still skeptical. On her last day, Catherine reminded Dean to stay focused on his work, ask for clarification every day, and document every task he completed each day. She also identified key people in the organization for Dean to lean on and reminded him of their pledged support.

On her last day, it was hard for Catherine to reconcile all the support she got from the corporate office with the fact that she was now out of work. So many people recognized the skills she brought to the organization and were also aware of the problem behaviors her boss exhibited, but no one was able to resolve the situation in a way that left Catherine with her job. Her boss certainly did not extend the professional courtesy to her that Catherine extended to Dean and many others.

The ending of this story is not as sad as you might think. Although Catherine left without her job, she demonstrated tremendous leadership qualities that will make her an asset to any organization.

We could file this one under “life’s not fair” or “things happen for a reason.” I prefer to think that things happen for a reason, and that reason will someday be revealed. I’ve never known anyone to leave an organization for the right reasons and not find herself far better off in her next situation.

I’m also a big fan of identifying life lessons, like these:

Leadership is not glamorous. It means making everything okay for everyone else even when no one is making it okay for you. It means putting your own needs aside to help those around you and bowing out of a situation without a fight for the good of the organization.

Taking responsibility is part of leadership. It is not just about making decisions. Responsibility is about reaching out to your subordinates and helping them even when they don’t realize they need help. It is seeing what is best for your team three steps down the road and positioning them for that today.

Being a leader is not about being right. It is about compromise and negotiation. Leaders put the goals of the organization first, the needs of their team next, and their egos in their pockets.

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  1. Yep…right on all three counts, Christine…especially about not being glamorous. I’ve told aspiring leaders under my charge that it’s never about you…your needs always come last. Putting the needs of others in front of mine is what’s expected. Good post, thank you!