In the last few weeks I have had three leaders approach me who are tagged as “a high potential leader” in their business, but instead of this being an exciting prospect, it is causing them stress. On the one hand it is flattering that their boss sees their potential, and the company wants to invest in them, but on the other hand, they now feel like they have to “fake it” because, in truth, they want to quit. If you are facing this same dilemma, here is some advice about what to do. First, you need to find the right balance between being honest and not burning any bridges. Consider “Bob.” Bob was a VP, Marketing for a fast growing start up and he was considered next in line for the CEO position. The CEO loved him. The challenge was that Bob was stressed out by the CEO’s style and rather than play it straight with him, he just brown nosed. Of course, the CEO loved Bob because he said all the right things. He was investing heavily in his development and he was planning on giving him a healthy equity package. On the day Bob quit, he was in a state of shock. It felt like a personal rejection and it made no sense given Bob’s ongoing behaviour which said, “I am in. I am one of the team.” We can learn a lot from Bob about what not to do.
Where Bob went wrong is he kept playing the “I am fully committed and totally enthusiastic about this business game” for too long. Instead of having a straight conversation with the CEO about his personal challenges, he chose to act like everything was great, or should I say “everything was fantastic.” He didn’t give any warning signs to the CEO, the person who counted the most. The end result is that when Bob left, the CEO was not impressed. He was left high and dry with not enough time to find a replacement.
If Bob played his card rights, he would have done a few things differently. First, he would have had a candid conversation with the CEO as soon as he was considering leaving. He would do this in a respectful way and put his cards on the table. This would give the CEO adequate time to respond to his concerns and it would give the CEO time to figure out if he could meet Bob’s needs. If it was not possible to retain Bob (and in this case I don’t believe it was), the CEO would have enough lead time to replace him. In the ideal world, the CEO would have three months to find a replacement regardless of what Bob’s contract said.
Now, you may be thinking, “If I told my boss I was planning to quit, what would happen if I didn’t land another job? Isn’t this career suicide?” This is where the gray zone comes into play. You need to do a thorough market analysis of your skills and you need to be clear on what you want to do next before you talk to your boss. You don’t want to tell your boss you are planning on quitting, if you have no idea what you want to do next. You need to do your homework first.
A key variable in this equation is also the job market. Could you land another job in three months given market conditions? If the answer is “yes” or “probably” then you are in good shape. If the answer is “no,” than you need to plant your networking seeds first and when you start to see some traction then give as much notice as possible.
It is also perfectly legitimate to say to your boss, “I plan on leaving within the year” without giving a firm date. As a confidante to executives, I have found that executives really appreciate this heads up. They feel “in the know.” If you report into an executive other than the CEO, this heads up is particularly important. When you quit, the CEO will likely drill your boss about why, especially if you are a high performer. If your boss has no idea that you were planning on resigning and is completely surprised, it is does not bode well for their personal performance as a leader. Most leaders know that they can’t retain everyone, but they don’t like to be left looking like a fool because of surprise resignations from high potentials.