The Right Way to Start a New Job — And Leave Your Old One

I once hired someone to help me dig out of the morass of work that had been piling up all around. As then-manager of the company’s largest division, I found myself overloaded with a host of primarily people issues – with little time to focus on my own research or clients.

The new guy stopped by my office right after signing all the requisite forms. “What are your top three issues?” he asked.

Hmmm. A bit of an odd start, but okay, I’ll play along. I shared my top three headaches – all complicated issues with multiple constituencies and intricate ramifications to be sorted out. As I spoke he made a few scratchy notes on a little pad. When I finished, he didn’t comment or ask a single question – just nodded and backed out the door.

Good grief. Obviously hiring this dude had been a major mistake and a total waste of time. I described three tasks and scared him off the property. I sigh, recognizing that I’ve just added a fourth major headache to my list.

To my amazement, he reappeared in my doorway at the end of the day. “Done,” he said. “What are the next three?”

Now, I’m not exactly recommending that as the perfect way to start a new job – at a minimum, it created a bit of angst in the new boss – but I would say that in terms of making an impression – and not just a “good” impression, but one that will last over the decades – this guy was emthe/em master. Bar none, the best I’ve ever seen.

I’ve known others who come close. One day a senior professional came into my office and stuffed a document under my nose. It looked like a proposal draft and had a neat note on top: “Saw you were working on this; hope this will help. Russ” “Who exactly is Russ?” she demanded.

A new guy I hired a couple days ago. He had taken the initiative to identify projects key people were pursuing and, without asking, had spent nights preparing useful drafts – filled with ideas and possible approaches. Then he left them, gifts in the night, on the senior person’s desk. He made an impression, too.

In contrast, I’ve seen many enter in ways that made little impression at all – people who ended up slipping away with as little fan fare as accompanied their arrival. Worse yet, were those whose biggest success seemed to be making everyone wonder who hired this guy anyway.

And I’ve seen equally many examples of people who leave companies badly. I still flinch at the memory of one person who quit after making extravagant promises and numerous commitments – leaving half finished projects with multiple loose ends, upcoming deadlines, and scheduled contributions – and spoke only of her urgent self-interest in moving on.

If she had started her exodus with an offer to make sure the loose ends were tied off, her colleagues would have been impressed by her thoughtfulness and, I’m sure, worked with her to create a more-than-fair transition plan. Leaving without addressing open commitments almost insures that your colleagues’ last impression of you will be negative. The biggest mistake people make when they depart is focusing only on their own agenda, leaving the human beings left behind high and dry.

In contrast, people who leave well are the ones who go out of their way to touch base with colleagues to make sure that everyone has everything they need going forward. They make sure you feel that even though they are leaving, they continue to wish you and the company success.

In today’s economy, the reality is that many of us are likely to be coming and going over the upcoming months – leaving firms, joining firm – of our own volition, or that of others. Whenever you do, those first few and last few weeks are critically important. You have great opportunity for upside when you arrive and tremendous potential for downside when you leave. You do more to shape your reputation, for the good or the bad, in the way you come and the way you go, than just about anything else you do.

Here is my fundamental philosophy: both of these periods are times when your primary focus must be (or at least must appear to be) firmly fixed on the company and your colleagues. Both of these are times when the phrases “what do you need?” and “how can I help?” should be the questions that everyone hears most clearly. Neither are times to talk about yourself and what you want. They are both times to give back. You’ll be repaid many times over in terms of the reputation you build.

What lessons have you learned about coming and going gracefully?

Source: Tamara J. Erickson @ Harvard Business