Tips for directors trying to leave jobs

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.

It’s been an interesting few days for reader comments to my email box. Last week, I wrote a column asking if it might be time for some leaders of nonprofits and family businesses to step aside, to let others rise into their roles.

My query was sparked by conversations with frustrated second-in-command professionals who can’t move forward while long-term bosses are roosting in the top spot. When those leaders are actively engaged in leading, there’s really nothing to be said to those next in line except “be patient or look elsewhere.” But when the leaders are simply biding their time until retirement, it can be argued that the organization is being harmed as well.

It turns out that some of those roosting leaders are as frustrated as everyone else in this scenario, at least according to my mail. The combination of stagnant funding, inattentive or overly attentive boards and an uncertain economy has taken its toll. Some feel they have been battling forces bigger than themselves for so long that they’ve lost the handle on their own careers or the motivation that brought them into the work. Others note that with nowhere else to go in the organization, they feel trapped into staying in order to provide for their families.

For those leaders who would like to break out of their current roles for something new, these tips might help.

  • Set aside time to refresh your sense of mission as it relates to your personal and professional goals. A couple of hours each week devoted to conversations with other leaders, meetings with career strategists or even sessions of personal journaling will provide a starting point.
  • An honest look at your finances is critical before you move on. If you've been chronically underpaid, you might benefit from a transition. But if you've been paid well, you might find that income replacement is not easily achieved elsewhere. Now is the time to identify actual needs and to streamline expenses to increase your flexibility.
  • Evaluate your technical skills. It's not unusual for organization leaders to be under-skilled in technology, social media or other processes that are now considered standard in the workplace. Having come up in their fields before those tools were common, they often rely on others for those tasks. If you're not confident in these skills, it's time for an upgrade.
  • Enhance your network. Leaders who know people in other industries have an advantage over those who have been networking in a silo — or not at all.
  • Re-energize yourself in your current role. It's only fair to your organization for you to be wholly engaged in your work, but it's also the best way to prepare yourself to move on. If you're standing still in your work life, it's difficult to build the momentum for change.
  • Get your board on board with your transition. There are a multitude of ways that a nonprofit or family-based leadership team can participate in a successful leadership transition. With rare exceptions, you should assume that they would rather be part of the process than be surprised by an announcement at the end. If the discussion makes you feel vulnerable, identify your goals and timelines before taking one or two people into your confidence. Then negotiate for assistance or options to phase out of your role.
  • Know that it's OK to leave without a new position lined up, assuming you can withstand the loss of income. Sometimes the best way to find a new role is to disengage from the one you're currently holding. Don't worry about how this will look to others; that message can be crafted.
  • Manage the message. Before you make anything official, decide how you want the information disseminated and to whom. Insist on seeing the announcement before it goes out, or consider hiring your own wordsmith to help you craft it. If you're planning to seek work elsewhere, you'll be glad that you put the effort into managing your image during the transition.
  • Go forward with courage. You're not a leader by accident — make your decisions and move ahead with intent.