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The Art of the Handoff: Leaving Things in Good Shape When You Need to Go
Leaving well is as important as starting well
I have experienced many transitions over the course of my career. These have run the gamut from taking time off for the births of my children to leaving a company where I had hundreds of recursive reports. These gear shifts have ranged from smooth to bumpy, from restorative to difficult, and each one has brought its own unique challenges.
Transitions are hard, but they are also important because they are a part of your legacy. A long and wonderful stint at a company you love could be soured if you don’t leave things in a good place. For this reason, paying attention at the end is just as important as ensuring a good beginning.
How to Transition
When you are getting ready to leave your role for a significant amount of time, use this rule of thumb to prepare:
Time spent preparing to go = 1 / 3 x time you will be gone
For example, if you will be out for six weeks, spend two weeks getting ready. If you are planning to leave a company entirely, start preparing as soon as you know you are departing. Take a look at your job responsibilities, and work with your manager to ensure a smooth transition. Once you have an idea of your timeline, begin with the following steps:
Create a document the day you start preparing. This document will be shared with your manager, those you transition work to, key peers, and your reports.
Start jotting down things you work on, whether in meetings, group threads, or emails in the shared document.
Document each open item including current projects and other responsibilities of your role:
Area: Clearly delineate the scope of work
New point of contact: Who will be responsible for this in your absence?
Partner: Who are the other people you work with on this?
Communication plan: How will you share this? (Make sure to mark this as complete when you have done so.)
Notes: Open items, next steps, and unresolved to-dos
Identify who you are handing your responsibilities off to, and make sure to keep an open line of communication with them.
Upload key documents to a shared drive and ensure your partners and points of contact have access to it.
Things to Capture
Only you know what is in your head. You probably do half a dozen things in your role that no one else knows about. These are probably second nature to you, but each one is a thread that will be left hanging for someone else to pick up when you depart.
As I was leaving Facebook, I realized just how many things I regularly did without a second thought. I counted more than twenty of these, but if you had asked me for a formal list of my responsibilities, I would never have included them.
Your job is not just your core role. There are a bunch of other ancillary tasks you perform around the office to ensure things go smoothly. Carefully consider all of these and make sure you document them well. Here is a breakdown of what you should be noting:
Your place on the team: Many times, you play a role as part of a larger ecosystem. For example, you may be the person who handles the happy hours or orders the team swag. You may own the weekly meeting on your calendar. Take stock of these secondary responsibilities and ask your teammates what you normally do that is helpful to them. Ensure there is someone else who can take on these duties in your absence.
Your extracurriculars: By the time I left Facebook, I led PM recruiting and the partnership we had with Women in Product, helped Naomi with calibrations and promotions, was the executive sponsor for API ERG, created and led our PM diversity sponsorship program, taught a class to all new PMs, and served on the RPM board. Each of these required me to find someone to take over my responsibilities and do a handoff. But none of them were officially documented as part of my roles and responsibilities.
Types of Transitions
Based on the kind of transition you’re making, you may run into different challenges. Knowing what yours will look like will help you plan for contingencies.
The Lift and Shift: Sometimes, your work will be completely taken on by someone else in your absence. This is the ideal scenario for a clean handoff, since most of your job will go to one person. If possible, have that person shadow you for a week or two to get a sense of what the role entails as you prepare to leave. When I left PayPal for my first parental leave, I trained a successor who took on the whole job. This made the transition smooth, and I was able to leave with little stress.
The Spray and Pray: Some teams can’t hire a dedicated backfill for your role, so you are left having to spread your work across multiple people. This is more complex, so documentation is critical. Make sure everyone you hand off to has access to the same information. This is why creating a shared document is so important; it helps to avoid redundancy and confusion. Focus on ensuring that there is a point of contact for everything and everyone.
On a Wing and a Prayer: When I went on my third parental leave, my manager hired a backfill who was slated to start on a Monday a couple of weeks before I went on leave. This left me time to help get her ready and ensure that I could do a clean handoff. The day she was supposed to start, however, she decided to stay with her old company because they made her a counter-offer over the weekend. I was left completely without backup. I ended up having to piece something together on the fly. This is never ideal, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.
The best thing you can do is to thoroughly document your responsibilities beforehand. This will give you a clear breakdown of what needs doing that you can fall back on when a new solution is required. It will also give your manager, reports, and colleagues peace of mind while you are away.
While leaving can be easy, reintegrating smoothly can present its own set of challenges. If you know the date of your return, make sure you plan for it as carefully as you planned for your departure. If you have been gone for a month or more, set up a time to speak with those who covered for you. Thank them for their help, and make a game plan for a reverse handoff. Make sure to meet with your manager immediately upon your return in order to get the lay of the land and reacquaint yourself with your responsibilities.
A Special Note on Parental Leave
I went on parental leave three times during my career, at three different companies. Each time, I failed to plan my reentry well, and when I returned, I ended up in a completely different role. In hindsight, there were several things I could have done to make it easier to restart without feeling lost and frustrated. I shared these on Quora a few years ago, just after my third parental leave.
Meet with your manager before you return. Learn what your role will be and what will be expected of you. Take time to have lunch with your supervisor and reaffirm your commitment to coming back and leaning into your role. Most managers will be very understanding if you’re feeling apprehensive, but do not let that overtake the conversation.
Keep in touch with your coworkers. It helps to meet up with your colleagues while on leave. This allows you to get a sense of how your workplace is evolving while you are gone. Consider sitting down with a couple of parents who have gone through similar transitions. Ask them about the logistics of making things work, like access to "mother's rooms" and how to store the pumped breastmilk. It will make your first days back a lot easier if you have friends who can reacquaint you with the environment and team dynamics.
Make sure you arrange backup childcare. A huge source of anxiety for working mothers is the question of what happens when you are left hanging, whether because your child is sick and cannot go to daycare or because your caregiver is sick. It will make you feel much more at ease to have a safety net in place. Sit down to figure out a backup plan with your partner, and perhaps with a relative or care facility.
Start on a Thursday. If you have concerns about your transition, try going back to work beginning on a Thursday. That way, if there are issues at home or with your childcare, you are only a couple of days away from the weekend, when you can evaluate the situation and figure out a solution.
Some people leave a mess behind when they depart from a company. This is unfortunate because it essentially undoes all the hard work they put into building their reputations, which lay in tatters while other people are left to clean up after them.
Leaving a company does not absolve you of your responsibility to your product, team, and customers. Transitioning well means arranging a smooth handoff and making sure nothing gets dropped. Your departure will shape your reputation with your former company long after you’re gone, so make sure your legacy is one you will be proud of.
If you are leaving your company on good terms, tell your manager as soon as you decide to depart. Keeping your supervisor in the loop ensures they can work with you to make the transition as seamless as possible. I shared the news that I was leaving Facebook with my manager six weeks before I left, the day after I decided to take the new job. Months before my departure, I also gave the company a heads up that I had been exploring other opportunities and kept them abreast of where I was in the process. While I was not sure if I was actually going to leave, I didn’t want any surprises to taint my legacy after eleven years.
A colleague of mine once announced that he was leaving the company. Being extremely well-respected, he did a clean handoff and prepared well, but he didn’t want a long, lingering goodbye. But he forgot one thing. The farewell 1:1s, happy hours, and goodbye parties aren’t just for you, however; they are also for those you leave behind. Take these moments to thank your colleagues and friends. Share your hopes and well-wishes for their continued success. Post or email your appreciation, and help those who remain get closure. An abrupt farewell can leave things feeling unresolved, so part of the departure process is putting a bow on your experience and the relationships you built.
Leaving well is a gift that you give your colleagues, your customers, your former employer, and yourself. Many people you leave behind today will go on to be your future reports, managers, references, and investors. The world is small, so make sure you end on a high note.