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The Behaviorist: Lessons from last days on the job

“You have just two months to live.”

If you heard those words from a doctor, would you make changes? Would you do things differently?

I haven’t heard that message from a doctor, but I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned during those poignant periods prior to leaving an organization.

Here is what I’ve learned.

Emotional distance

One of my team members, Jim, brings me a problem. Lauren, his internal customer, continues to ignore the process we’ve enacted to serve her department. Jim is frustrated, and I don’t blame him.

But I feel calm. This is Jim’s problem and I’m there to help him solve it. I’m leaving soon and Jim is going to need to be able to solve this problem on his own anyway. If he can’t, he’s going to need to live with that.

I sure sound like a good manager, don’t I? Well, being calm and rational is not my usual reaction. Outside of this transition, I would have made Jim’s annoyance my own. And it’s possible that I would have tried to solve Jim’s problem by going to Lauren’s manager. At minimum, I would have spent much of the morning feeling annoyed, but I didn’t, and Jim solved the problem on his own.

A transition can provide emotional distance for more thoughtful and less emotionally wrought decisions.

Find the right people

Looking at the team through the eyes of its next manager provides great clarity.

During one transition, I had a team member who just didn’t fit. I hired her hoping I could train her on interpersonal skills that she had not demonstrated in the interview process. But I never could. I had tried creating a variation of the job where she could be more successful and I gave her my time and encouragement. But it didn’t work and she was hurting the team. I needed to fix the problem.

So, I met with her and told her kindly but directly that I felt she was not a good fit. The next week she told me she had found another job and gave two weeks’ notice. She left on good terms and I recruited someone who fit right and the team improved.

Sustainable systems

Looking at things through the eyes of my team’s next manager also helped me see gaps in processes I had put in place, or not put in place.

Knowing that I was leaving forced me to look at things more objectively and see them as my successor would. This led to fixes that will have a lasting impact.

Chronic problems

In one of my jobs, there were chronic problems that irritated me like a folded sock on a blistered foot.

Early in my tenure, and for most of my time there, I agonized over these problems, communicated them to other managers and to executive leadership, and tried to fix them.

But as my time at the job neared its end, I concluded that I would not be able to fix these issues with the time left. So I stopped worrying about them and started to think about how to help my team succeed in spite of them. The result was that I suddenly felt better and my thinking became more innovative as I envisioned solutions to these roadblocks.

Lasting empowerment

During a recent transition, I narrowed my management focus. My goal was to empower my team in lasting ways.

In weekly meetings with each of my direct reports, I identified something good they had done and explained why it was good. The things we talked about were simple: making extra effort to help a colleague, solving a customer’s problem, offering a good idea. I celebrated their small successes with them and connected their actions to wider goals.

What I didn’t do was talk about the latest conflict with another department, or the latest reorganization, or the new purchase order system. I spent my remaining time in conversations that felt personal and affirming. Was this the right approach? I’m not sure. But I hope I left them with a sense of purpose and direction.

So, here’s an exercise for you. Next Monday, pretend you are handing off your team to a new manager and look at things through their eyes. Look at your team’s strengths and weaknesses, look at your systems and how they function, and look at the challenges of the wider company.

Are you proud to hand off this team as your legacy? Are there things you want to fix? Well, get at it and see what you can do. The clock is ticking.

John Walker is a consultant and strategist at Work Wisdom LLC, a Lancaster-based firm specializing in organizational culture, communication, collaboration, conflict and coaching. He can be reached at [email protected].

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