On leaving, endings and transitions

I am wrapping up an interim gig and realized, as I am going through some form of transition again, I am not particularly good at them. Also, looking around and talking to people, I might not be alone in this…

Transitions shake up the routine. They remind us that there is a whole world we were a part of, that will, for us, end, and for others continue as if it was the only one there ever was. Transitions also remind us that there are other worlds that we weren’t a part of until now, and makes the existence of these other worlds blatantly obvious to others who might have conveniently ignored these.

It is exhilarating. It is terrifying.

In that space in between, when the old one is gone and the new one hasn’t started yet, there is a moment where things stand still. For just a split second. Where you are alone, as you and just you. Not the old one anymore. Not yet the new one. No keys, no access card, no job title, no dress code, no obvious “so what is it you do”. Don’t miss that moment. It is an opportunity. We get to reset the clock. We get to start afresh, or at least with a moderately cleaned-up slate and less baggage. A professional, personal and emotional spring clean of sorts. No shell as you left behind the old one, and haven’t put on a new one yet.

You are the new kid. Again. And you might still remember what sort of things happened to the new kid. No network, less established routines, less safety net. You are not sure you want to be the new kid. Or you can’t wait to leave the old thing – but still, you’d rather not be the new kid. No matter how old, how much of an adult, how much of a competent professional you think you are (unless there is, in fact, a memo I have missed. Could somebody please chuck it my way).

So, to make the most of this new chance at things, a bit of reflection that helped me in previous transitions: What is the old thing, that version of myself in that context, that I want to leave behind? What are the fab things I picked up on that journey segment that I want to keep? What were the things that couldn’t be lived that really need to be taken for a spin now? What new combinations and ideas do I now see, in that liminal space between two things, two states of being? For people who like and need rituals (me, definitely) – you get to make up whatever works for you. I have burned lists and unsent letters in the past (just keep safety in mind when you do this). And while “leaving drinks” can be very much a part of what needs to happen, a rambunctious night with an epic hangover is not a solution or a process shortcut in and of itself to managing a transition. I tried that, it distracts from the “real” work that needs to happen (that’s often why we do it, distractions feel safer).

Some of this discomfort comes from fear. Did I make any impact, any difference at all?Will people miss me? If nobody will miss me, what was the point of me being there in the first place? Will the new crew like me? People create impact in different ways. So do you. We create impact by doing (that is the more obvious one), but also by being. That one is harder to track. We are for the most part exceptionally bad at telling others what the positive impact were they made, as people, with who they are, not just with what they did (although a few thank yous for some of the doing would go a long way, too). So, we often don’t hear back.

We want our lives to matter. And when we spend so much time in all-consuming work environments, these often have to carry the full weight of our hopes, dreams and aspirations to make that dent into the universe. That doesn’t always work out. And sometimes we change lives and we never hear about it, while we leave deflated and broken, with the good things unsaid. Let’s not do it like that.

Let’s be deliberate about these things. Traditional societies tend to have rituals and celebrations for big life changes. Nowadays, we change jobs, employers, careers, continents or at least cities etc more often, and we build smart, resilient~ish portfolios so that is never fully clear what is ending, what is beginning and where we are on the inside in all of this.

In the business world, we are not good at rituals and transitions. We tend to gloss over them because they point to things that are essential, aka potentially uncomfortable. For the one doing the moving, and for everyone else too. It involves emotions, group dynamics and all sorts of hairy nonlinear things we would rather pretend didn’t exist, for these last few days “before XXX leaves”. As if that ever worked. Before everything snaps back into “normal” – whatever that is – or so we hope. So we don’t have to do the thinking and the feeling. Say your thank yous. Don’t expect too much back, but take in what you hear. And then do your own work. As the leaver. As the stayer.

Hold things lightly in those last few days. They might hate to see you go, or your leaving might be the conduit for all sorts of things to crystallize that didn’t have anywhere else to go. It might not be about you. It might be about you. It might remind you about the good things, and the key people, you won’t be able to teleport into your new setup. It highlights regrets, missed opportunities, misunderstandings. It can also mellow things out a bit. People getting very nice. People being more appreciative in your last 2 weeks than they were in the 11 months before. And how weird that feels, once the saccharine-high wears off. And how you still want to thank people. The grief stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance apply, whether the leaving was voluntary (not all are…), even if the end date was perfectly foreseeable in a project or mat cover contract. Acceptance tends to come quite a bit later in the process and for some earlier than for others, so you might all be at different stages in this. Acceptance may come long after you have parted ways.

People leave marks on others and on organisations. We all do that to everyone all the time. Whether we are physically still there or not. Be conscious of others as you do what is right for you. Stick to your values. Also, not every change might have been your choice, and you know people know and they know you know. Be conscious anyway. These things tend to be more weird for you than for others and, for the most part, the news cycle is pretty short. And some things make darn good stories once the dust has settled and the cuts have scabbed over… (keep confidentiality, needless to say). The good people and things will remain in your life. I remember role models in leaving. And bad leavers that people still talk about. Keep following your values. This is not a zero sum game (few things actually are).

Take the time. Have the coffees. Find a way for expressing the gratitude. Don’t just close off your to do list and your handover document. What are the conversations that still need having? What are things you need to close off “within”? Allow yourself some time. Also, don’t burn any bridges. This is not the last ride on the carousel, for nobody… (keep mixing metaphors ;-)) Draw boundaries to start having space for the New. If you can avoid it, don’t start the new gig the next day or the next Monday. You might not know what wants to come up, what you still want to sort for yourself. And you probably deserve a good recharge, to get the suits back from storage to see which ones still fit… or to pack them away for the time being. As the case may be.

What are your tips for having good endings and beginnings? How do you honor transitions? Any helpful rituals? What are great things organisations do that makes a difference to help people with these transitions? 

 

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