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How to Quit Gracefully: 4 Tips for the Consummate Professional

A well-crafted departure fuels positive memories, both in your own mind and in the minds of former colleagues.
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The first step toward your next career opportunity is leaving your last one.

That, however, takes a delicate skill: knowing how to navigate your exit in a way that bolsters rather than busts your reputation.

A professional departure matters more than ever, as the frequency of job changes is on the rise. Ninety-one percent of millennials, for example, say they expect to stay at a job for less than three years.

Meanwhile, it's easier than ever for employers to assess you -- one quick LinkedIn search can reveal common contacts whose opinions may make or break your next opportunity.

So how do you leave your job gracefully?

I won't elaborate on basics like whether you should resign over the phone, via email, or in person (in person is best), if it's advisable to tell your direct boss first (it is), if you should write a formal letter (you should), or if it's wise to let loose how irritated you are with your boss and/or your company (it's not).

Instead, I'll share four less-discussed tips for how to exit like a pro:

1. When you most feel like quitting, don't.
You may be having an "I've had enough" moment. Perhaps you are pulling out your hair after your boss changed his mind for the seventh time, or you cannot remain in the room with that overbearing co-worker for another minute. Maybe you're facing a problem that feels insurmountable.

This is not the time to leave. Stay, overcome the obstacle you're confronting, and leave on a high -- once you've accomplished something truly exceptional.

2. Don't let it be a surprise.
Your resignation should not come as a shock.

I've left my fair share of jobs. Up to months in advance of my departure, I've gathered up my courage and confided in my boss that I may soon need to leave. The reasons have included:
  • I had plans to attend graduate school
  • I loved the company, but my passions and skills seemed to no longer be the ideal fit, given the way the business had evolved
  • I felt strongly that one of my staff members had earned the opportunity to assume my job
A fellow executive and I once resigned our posts on the same day. Our CEO was visibly angry with my colleague, but he assured me: "You've been sharing your thoughts with us for some time and we appreciate it. We see your departure very differently."

Sharing your thinking in advance may not be possible in every circumstance -- like when you have a vindictive manager -- but it is helpful more often than you might expect.

3. Proactively ensure a smooth transition.
A well-documented transition plan signals that you care about leaving the company in a good place.

Write down in a crisp, organized fashion everything a person assuming your job -- or supervising your job -- needs to know. This includes what you do, how you do it, and what drives success in the role. Note any key files and relevant login information. Include recommendations for improvement, presented in a positive, supportive way.

If it feels appropriate, go the extra mile to help with succession planning. I did this when I made one of the most wrenching decisions of my life, and left my dream job. Offer to draft a job description for your successor, recommend candidates, and help interview. Within reason, make yourself available to assist your successor as he or she comes up to speed.

4. After you give notice, work harder than ever.
Do you have one foot out the door, complete with a relaxed schedule and little left to accomplish? Is that the final impression you want to leave?

Last impressions matter.

I still remember Elisa N. who, some years ago, resigned from the company I worked for at the time.

After giving notice, she continued to work so hard you would have thought her life depended on it. She was clacking furiously on her computer when I went home at 9 p.m. on her final day, leaving the impression that nothing was more important than delivering results until the final second.

If you asked me about her today, I would say "Run, do not walk, to hire this woman."

While I've neatly listed these tips, I know the reality is never easy. Moving on from a job requires strength and grace. Don't be afraid to get help. Test-drive your resignation plan with mentors you trust. Seek out online experts like Jessica Stillman, who just this week shared an excellent piece tailored for entrepreneurs.

A well-crafted departure fuels positive memories, both in your own mind and in the minds of former colleagues. And memories, after all, are what make a reputation--and ultimately career success.