People remember far better how you end something, than how you begin it.
This is especially true when it comes to your job.
When I was a hungry, green employee, I was told by a mentor that the time to do your best work is when you’ve decided to leave your position so you’ll exit on the best of terms. It was one of those leadership maxims that seemed like solid advice so I tried my best to take it.
Then I became an employer, and found that this is advice is not universally shared. On the contrary, too often there exists this odd assumption that when people leave their jobs, no matter the reason, that for a brief moment in time they’ll be forgiven for ceasing to care. Or at best, to care a whole lot less. (a.k.a. short-timer’s syndrome) It’s a passive aggressive version of take this job and shove it.
Now this can take different forms. Sometimes people check out and aren’t reliable. Others stir up dust by gossiping to colleagues about what aggrieved them or sharing their new inflated salary figures. Some adopt a this-place-will-fall-apart-without-me posture and spread negativity. As a boss, watching an employee leave on a low note caused me no joy, even to be able to say “guess this shows it’s for the best.” It was actually painful to see otherwise great employees blow it on their way out the door to a new position.
Most importantly, this is hugely detrimental to the person leaving, as the remaining team members are left with a negative impression of him or her that’s more powerful than years of good work preceding it. This causes real problems for professional reputations that need to be highly portable. And not to mention that most companies and recruiters will check references off-the-record at former companies.
In Harvard Business Review, Stanford Professor Robert Sutton writes about this exact phenomenon when leaders step down from their positions. He references research showing that how a person handles themselves during a departure has a determinative impact on how others remember him or her. He calls it the “peak-end rule,” in that people remember best peak experiences of others, good or bad, and endings. And as you exit, it’s too late to affect the peaks of your tenure, so your shot at leaving a legacy lies with managing how you leave.
There’s opportunity here as well. You can even enhance your legacy as you move on. When I think of the best employees I’ve had over the years, they’ve all left the company with positivity and grace. (Even when leaving wasn’t their choice.) They gave generous notice, were dependable and reliable until the last day, and spoke highly of their experiences with the company ad infinitum. My esteem of those team members went up, and continues high to this day.
If you’re at the place of contemplating your next step, consider your own peak-end rule. If you want to be remembered as a rock star, realize that all eyes are watching and waiting to see the last thing you do as you leave the stage.