Dreaming of Quitting Like that Goldman Sachs Exec? Five Reasons Why You Shouldn't

Jane Howze |Founder and Managing Director of The Alexander Group
Tuesday, 3 Apr 2012 | 11:43 AM ET
Altrendo | Getty Images

Greg Smith’s loud, public and angry resignationfrom Goldman Sachs in the op-ed section of The New York Times sent shock waves throughout corporate America, not because he left, but because of the way he left.

Can he live to work another day?

Absolutely! He has both the reputation and wealth to do so. Can most of us leave our positions the way he did and survive in the business world? Probably not.

Many years ago a mentor told me, “no one will remember your accomplishments in a position, but they will always remember how you left.” I have found that to be consistently true. Many years from now, Greg Smithwill not be remembered as a brilliant trader, relentless worker, and successful recruiter for Goldman Sachs, but as the guy who quit his job in a spectacularly angry and dramatic fashion.

Tempting as it may be, you should resist the impulse to follow Greg Smith’s lead when leaving your job – assuming you still wish have a career that is. You can and should resign with grace and class. You need not burn a bridge. You can, in fact, build one.

There is an etiquette that should be followed when an executive resigns and moves on that includes the following:

1. Give the right amount of notice. Even if company policy is two weeks, that is likely not enough time to transition an executive position. It won’t even give your replacement enough time to learn what questions to ask, let alone absorb the considerable knowledge dump. Whatever notice you give, be willing to be stay an extra week in the interest of maintaining strong long-term relationships.

2. Be positive. Resign in person, if possible. Think this is obvious? You would be shocked by the number of people who resign only in writing or by phone, fearful of face-to-face confrontation. Instead, thank your manager in person for the opportunity and mentorship he or she has provided. As tempting as it is to tell your manager how awful the company, culture or position was, resist. It is past the point where it matters. If asked, be tactful in conveying the problems, realizing that you might not be 100-percent blameless.

3. Present a plan. When giving notice, present a transition plan that lists ongoing projects and summarizes their status, your responsibilities, appropriate contacts, and suggests possible colleagues to assume responsibility for those projects after your departure. Offer to assist in the process of beginning a search for your replacement if it is clear the company will have to recruit from the outside. Make sure all hard and electronic copies of your files are in order.

4. Don’t slack off. While it might be tempting to take that long lunch or come in a little later, don’t do it. Your work ethic should not change once you have given notice—if anything you should work harder so that the transition is as easy as possible for your replacement, your manager and the company itself. Which leads me to say again . . .

5. Be positive. Avoid the temptation to boast to your colleagues about your new position, the company and the big salary increase you are getting. While some colleagues will be happy for you, remember that most of them will be staying at the company and could resent your success. The less said about your next gig the better. Every day, you should be thinking, “how can I preserve my relationships with the company, my manager and my colleagues?”

6. Final actions. Shortly before you leave, again meet with your manager in person. Report on the status of the transition and offer to be available to respond to any questions. Re-emphasize your interest in maintaining a cordial long-term relationship and thank him again for the opportunity he has given you. If your manager is gracious and appreciative, you might ask him for a letter of recommendation for your files. Communicate with your subordinates and colleagues, answer questions and offer to be available while your replacement gets comfortable in the position.

You might be reading this and thinking, “why in the world would I do this for an organization that didn’t pay me enough, worked me too hard and was too dysfunctional for me to stay?” I refer you back to my mentor who said that people only remember how you leave. He was a successful COO of a top 10 law firm when he was recruited to a competitor. He followed all of the above steps, even working at his new firm during the week and returning to his old firm a couple of days each month until his replacement was recruited. Twenty years later, there is not a partner at his former firm who does not remember the personal sacrifice this executive made. He has lifelong relationships and enough references to last a lifetime. And in the end, it is about the relationships.

Jane Howze is founder and Managing Director of The Alexander Group. She has more than 25 years experience in executive search and has recruited executives worldwide in banking, energy, not for profit, technology, manufacturing, legal and professional services. She directs Board searches for the firm and is actively involved in The Alexander Group’s diversity practice. Ms. Howze is quoted frequently in major business publications, serves as a columnist for culturemap.com and is the author of Best Practices for Executive Search Firms for the Inside the Minds book series.

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