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CIO Unplugged 10/29/14

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

The Art of Saying Goodbye

How you say goodbye is more important than the first hello.

We only get a chance to make a first impression once. It is hard to recover a blown opportunity at saying hello. When I start at a new organization, one of my top priorities is meeting with as many individuals as I can as quickly as I can. I call this “hit the ground listening.” It is amazing how you can accelerate your adoption in a new company by asking questions and showing genuine interest in others and how things work.

I don’t recall all of my interactions. But I do recall every interaction where the first impression was blown by either party. In fact, those relationships rarely recovered despite reconciliation attempts.

Based on that, how can I assert that saying goodbye is more critical than that first impression?

While the first impression is typically a moment between two people, the last goodbye is often public. People watch, observe, and take note. They make impressions that, like first hellos, leave an indelible mark whose impact is irreversible.

How we treat an associate as they leave says more about the culture of an organization than anything else. We need to perfect the goodbye. There is an art.

There are a variety of valid ways to say goodbye. First, I do not believe that title dictates the extravagance of a goodbye. Why do we reserve champagne just for executives? Often the departing analyst may have had equal or greater impact! A rock star is a rock star.

I recall one farewell reception where a fellow executive who was walking by our festivities was wondering which of our peers was retiring. He seemed aghast that is was just a farewell for an analyst who had been with us for five years. I told him that the impact that analyst had in five years was greater than the impact of some execs who had been there twice as long. It is not about title or length of service, it is about material impact. The greater the impact, the greater the celebration.

Second, make sure you understand how the departing person wants to say goodbye. While I am all about big celebrations, others prefer a sedate getaway. Always do what that person prefers — it is their party! I recall lavishing praise on someone for the amazing work they had done. Afterwards, they texted me that they dislike that kind of recognition. My attempt to bless backfired. When someone prefers an understated affair, I think it is important that this is shared with those observing.

The next time this situation presented itself, I simply let the team know that we really appreciated the person who was leaving, but they specifically asked for a quiet exit and we would honor that. A card or small luncheon may be perfectly appropriate.

There are many ways to say goodbye and this is by no means an exhaustive list. My favorite thing to do is to verbally affirm others. We bless them with a reception full of friends and family, but the thing people have told me time again as having the most significant impact is the verbal praise received from those they worked with for so many years.

As the leader, you start this. You surround the person, look in their eyes, and speak truth. Dependent on their comfort and your relationship, I recommend including touch. You don’t need to prepare a speech — this should be spontaneous. Just speak what is in your heart and perhaps include an anecdote. Try to include something light to counterbalance the sorrow that everyone will naturally feel. As you lead, others will follow.

To be able to say goodbye like this clearly requires something of you. That you have relationship with your entire team. That you know them by name. That the stories are natural to come by because you have shared experiences.

What if the person leaving was a poor performer? All the more reason to celebrate!

And if anyone tells me they have no time to celebrate and say goodbye in an artful, thoughtful way … you need a new career.

Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.