Leaving on a High Note: Build Bridges While You Leave Your Team

| 7 min read
#engineering #emotions #team-dynamics #exiting #leadership

There are plenty of reasons you might end up leaving a team. Maybe you’re leaving a company for a better opportunity, maybe your current role isn’t working out, maybe you’re staying at the company but leaving for a new role or a new part of the company. All of these moments can be incredibly emotionally charged, which makes navigating them especially challenging.

And what’s weird about leaving a team is that it’s one of the few times when our emotional responses to situations put us out of sync with what is best for us and for others around us. I think that, for the most part, what feels like the right decision during your employment will be the appropriate decision. There are management hacks, tips, and tricks to nudge ourselves to be more efficient, but mostly how we feel and what we should do are pretty well aligned.

During times when we’re preparing to leave a team or a collaboration, our emotions can upend our behavior that can make our own incentives misaligned with the incentives of our team and management. This dichotomy is what makes it hard to understand how to leave a team well. Coming to terms with the challenges will help you leave a more lasting impact, and make it more likely that they appreciate the work you did and how you left.

There are three responses during this process that I’m going to focus on:

  • Things You Need to Come to Terms With
  • Things You Probably Care About, But Shouldn’t
  • Things To Finish As You Leave

Things to Come to Terms With

You Just Have Like… Way Less Time Than You Think.

Deadlines create emotional incentives for us to complete stuff we’d been putting off for long periods of time. And exiting is a huge, emotional deadline. But leaving a team is not the right time to check off a bunch of stuff on your checklist. It is the appropriate time to prioritize even more aggressively and recognize you’ve got one, maybe two things you can hand off really well, and make sure your efforts are focused there.

Finishing projects on time is hard enough in perfect circumstances. Finishing projects while you’re also doing the thing where you’re trying to unwind your existing responsibilities. The nature of all human endeavor is that you’ll always be covering areas that aren’t exactly articulate, or you might have priorities, goals, and beliefs that you would like to see continued after you leave. Emotionally for you, and practically for your team, it’s better that you take stock of these and figure out if there are one or two that you can hand off. Don’t try to wrap up them up in a neat bow.

Leaving Knowledge gaps

Your goal with creating a successful rolloff is not to create 15 pages of documentation. Creating extensive documentation right before you leave probably isn’t all that helpful. In part because a “brain dump” perspective isn’t conducive to good writing, and in part because you’re not going to be around to explain any new ideas that come up. Imagine you were going to school and your teacher was going to start teaching a different class that week and tried to cram everything they might have taught you for the quarter in that week. It would suck.

Instead, focus on making sure the initiatives or projects you had ownership of have people who will take care of them. Do this at the start of your rolloff and make sure you’re around for teammates to pull information from, but don’t worry about the stuff that’s going to drop. It’s not your job to figure it out, and even if it were, you don’t have enough time to do it well.

Your unfinished work or ongoing commitments

You might have an agreement where your relationship to a given team is contingent on the completion of a project and a set of projects. (Maybe you’re a consultant working in an area of the division, or maybe you’ve been an embedded resource) But unless there are very specific circumstances (and I would argue even in those cases there will probably be some misses) you’re not going to finish them.

Your goal in your remaining time is absolutely not to finish them. There is no world where you finish your commitments, leave gracefully, and are recognized for the awesomeness of those commitments. So just… stop. The more likely outcome is that you make a royal mess, under-communicate and underdeliver and everyone else will be less happy as a result, including you, who was stressed right until the last moment.

The first time I ever left a job as a dev, I was so focused on finishing this big project because I really wanted them to remember me well. I thought if I could deliver this one thing, I would be remembered really well. It was part of a service that I had built out and owned, and I wanted to make sure it was perfect before I left.

Flash forward months later… and chatting with old coworkers, they let me know that the work I thought I crushed was full of bugs. They didn’t really understand what I had accomplished, and it caused a lot more problems than it was worth.

Things Not to Care About

Your professional reputation, as it relates to the projects you’ve been working on

As a corollary to not caring about previous work, don’t let your desire “leave professionally” cause you to do too much or prioritize incorrectly. There will be gaps when you leave, there will be areas that people will express frustration about how you left if it causes them frustration. I don’t think it’s worth trying to make an extra effort to prevent those frustrations.

My experiences have led me to the conclusion that the second your departure has been announced, the people on your team are already planning and thinking about life without you. They’re already thinking about you in the past tense. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it should take some pressure off because how they will feel about you is mostly already baked in. Just be the same great person you were leading up to the move, and your professional relationship will probably remain the same.

Thinking about how your departure will impact team dynamics

Maybe I’m just super self-centered, but whenever I’ve left or changed teams, I’ve always imagined how my departure might impact the team I’ve been on. I’ve wondered how they’ll fill the gap, and imagine what might accidentally blow up.

The reality is, that either you’ve done a good enough job communicating and partnering with team members pre-move that they’ll be happy to continue championing your goals post-leave, or you haven’t and they won’t. So leaving isn’t the right time to try to do that communication.

Your priorities aren’t the team's priorities (even when you were there). This falls pretty closely in line with Let It Fail, where the reality is that if you were heroically holding up some aging system, you probably weren’t doing your team or yourself any favors. Your leaving is most likely not going to cause an immediate collapse, but is much more likely to cause some pain that either gets resolved or carries on. It’s a much less exciting outcome (especially if you, like me, have an attachment to feeling important), but it’s the truth.

While this might sound depressing, it should also be freeing. You don't need to take herculean action in your last 2 weeks, just point out potential gaps and let the people that remain take care of it. Instead of over documenting or fretting, use the two weeks to emotionally let go of those things you’ve cared about. Talk through the situation with your coworkers and management, and support them in the situations where they ask for help, but don’t feel the need to push all of your knowledge out. The team will find a way.

Things to Finish

Assign owners for remaining tasks to make sure that they get picked up

Just because the work you do in the last two weeks is ephemeral doesn’t mean you have no responsibilities. Leaving well means making sure that critical tasks you were on have owners and that those owners know how to reach out to you while you’re still there. Do this early and often. Do Not worry about boring them with a checklist of every small thing in your head. Explain enough that they can bear the weight of the added responsibility, say you’re around, and then let them handle the solution. They will take things in a different direction than you might have, or they might let it drop entirely, but post-hand-off that is their decision that they can make one way or another. Your team will appreciate your having done so.

The logistics of leaving

Focus on the project management of it all. Instead of worrying about the stuff that will continue on without you, focus on the very practical stuff, like the timeline of your exit. When will your move be formalized? What Slack channels will you remain in (and for how long) and what will you exit? When will that happen? Are there meetings you’re going to stay attached to? For the rest, when do you intend to stop showing up?

Are there specific meetings you want to have to formally hand off work? Are there launches or other deadlines that will occur within your final weeks of being on that team? How do you plan to handle those?

I would recommend spending a bunch of time thinking about the dates and times that various moments have to happen, and getting good agreements with the leaders on your team as to why and when they’ll occur. That way you have a clear plan.

Be Done Early

The one job I felt I had a semi-successful exit from, I was done a week early and was sitting on my hands. I felt really silly for doing this, but in retrospect it was actually my most successful exit. Like I was taking up unnecessary space. But what it actually meant is that there was enough slack in the system for the team not to have the pressure of my leaving. I was around to answer any questions, but wasn’t critical to having those questions answered. It’s an example of Celebrating a Successful Landing. The success wasn’t that a bunch of stuff got wrapped up, the success was that the transition occurred without lots of upheaval or chaos.

Leaving Is Hard

A Dall-E rendering of an oil painting of a man waving goodbye to close personal friends to go an exciting journey with a beautiful mountain in the background A Dall-E rendering of an oil painting of a man waving goodbye to close personal friends to go an exciting journey with a beautiful mountain in the background

No matter how you spin it, doing any sort of move from a project or team you were on to another one is hard. Even if it’s within the same company, as the result of a successful outcome, and you’re excited about the future, there’s a whole host of emotions that comes along with it. Give yourself the time and space to process those emotions, as part of the leaving process, and not as something to deal with after it’s all over.