Is Leaving with Aplomb the new Arriving with Style?

There was a time when the manner and timing of your arrival was your coup de grace moment. Not just movie stars, swishing out of limos in the frock that makes their peers spit with envy, but business peoples’ signing ceremonies featuring almost as prominently as those of famous footballers getting an eye-watering sum for wearing a different coloured shirt this season. But if a couple of recent articles getting considerable attention in online circles are any kind of indicator, the golden moment is now the departure. (One online forum I read refers to these dramatically announced departures as people’s “*flounce* <delete>” moments, although that adds a certain swish that the examples I’m thinking of have managed to avoid.)

The article that seems to have triggered it all was Greg Smith’s Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs: having your resignation statement published in the New York Times was always going to create a splash, even if the splash is well-written and mostly avoids melodrama. A day earlier, James Whittaker published a slightly less composed, slightly more aggressive article: Why I left Google. And then the gloves were off. As Yahoo News! was quick to cover, the parodies started to appear. They picked up on a delightful spoof via the Daily Mash by Darth Vader, titled “Why I Am Leaving the Empire.” They missed my favourite, by Tom Malinowski at Human Rights Watch, where even the following:

Tomorrow, I will send my resume to the firms of Patton Boggs, Qorvis, and White & Case, which have lobbied for dictatorships such as Qaddafi’s Libya, Mubarak’s Egypt, Bahrain, and Equatorial Guinea.”

left the author feeling obliged to point out that the piece was actually an April Fools prank.

(He even mentioned Henry Kissinger, which triggered a flashback to the urban legend that Tom Lehrer retired from satirical performance when Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Lehrer himself admits he once made a remark about the award making political satire obsolete, but he was already long retired. Lehrer is typically wry about this particular myth, but alert to the underlying point: “Years ago, it was much easier: We had Eisenhower to kick around. That was much funnier than Nixon.”)

The day after April Fools Day failed, as usual, to deliver April Wisdom Day, but I did notice a blog post by Dan Pink, writing about Prof Karl Pillemer’s 30 Lessons for Living book, where he quoted:

… what Pillemer calls the “refrigerator list” of the five lessons gleaned from [his subjects’ 50,000 years of work] experience:

1. Choose a career for the intrinsic rewards, not the financial ones.

2. Don’t give up on looking for a job that makes you happy.

3. Make the most of a bad job.

4. Emotional intelligence trumps every other kind.

5. Everyone needs autonomy.

Looking at that in the light of Whittaker and Smith’s online resignation statements, both seem certainly to be following this advice (and/or their noses or gut instincts) on points 1, 2 and 5, and possibly the other two.

Both of their statement’s read a little like teary-eyed speeches at a divorce party. For Smith:

The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.”

while for Whittaker:

The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.”

There’s definitely more than a whiff of “You’re just not the same girl/boy/multinational trading powerhouse I fell in love with and married” about both documents, plus a hint of a man nursing a drink at a kitchen table who’s holding back a tear while trying to say “You’ve changed” in as reasonable tone as they can muster. (I’m not convinced either man took on board Prof Pillemer’s fourth point before sharing their feelings with the Internet, but the same can be said of so much of the web’s content.)

Of course, both statements tell us only one side of the story, although it’s fair to say that it’s a bruised, hurt, ‘I wish things didn’t have to be this way’ story in both cases. And there’s more than a hint of ‘Honey, face it: you blew it’ in both stories too. What there isn’t is any sense that much effort was put into the relationship in the other direction. Given that both companies presumably valued the men who have so firmly put the ‘ex-‘ back into executive, was there no inkling that something was afoot and that constructive moves might be made to retain the services of people who had presumably been promoted a few times to reach their final positions? I don’t have the time or energy to search the web long enough to find the answers, but please comment if you can enlighten any of us on that.

As we can only assume from their postings that both men tried hard on point 3 – “Make the most of a bad job” – as long as they felt able to, it would be enlightening – and encouraging – to hear that these organisations did something to help them do so, or perhaps make a bad job less so. Are these HR Departments – or any others – looking at that list on Dan Pink’s blog and asking how much they’re doing to help individuals take Prof Pillemer’s advice.

And how do HR professionals feel about reading the comment from ‘Joe’ on the Pink blog, which asks a simple question:

These 5 make a great deal of sense. However, a lot of Americans today are just trying to put food on the table, provide an education for their children and hold a job with some type of security (which there are a shortage of.) How does a middle class person trying to make ends meet balance this goal of of finding a job which makes them happy while trying to stay above water?”

Employment and work are relationships, and it takes two to tango just as it takes two to fall out embarrassingly in public. If engagement strategy is alive and well, most organisations should already be actively working on providing rewards that are actually valued, and on recognizing the role that granting a degree of autonomy has to play in encouraging engagement. (Or, to extent the metaphor, in warding off divorce.)

Times may be hard, but surely organisations that help employees through the ‘bad job’ moments are displaying emotional intelligence as well as expecting it to be displayed in return? And surely making the jobs people have ones that make them as happy as possible is better for all concerned than making sure they keep looking. And looking elsewhere. ‘Dog eat dog’ has an aggressively catchy appeal, but it can only lead to two things: dead dogs and cannibalism. (Ok, three things: companies preoccupied with recruiting their remaining employees’ next meal.)

I’m not holding my breath, but it would be uplifting to suddenly find myself reading a swathe of ‘how we persuaded John/Jane/Employee KZ-6894183/b to stay and made them happy’ articles. (And even nicer to realise they’ve read the recent Edelman Trust Barometer figures before deciding whose name to publish them under if they wish to be believed on first reading.)

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