Thank You, and Good Night!

How to make a graceful exit when you resign.

“Stakeholders [consider] the CFO to be one of the rudders of the ship,” says Kent. “When you’re contemplating leaving, you obviously need to make the best decision for yourself. But you also need to make the best decision possible for investors.”

That’s true even if the transition is a short one. When Mike Healy resigned as CFO of Santa Clara, California-based Genesis Microchip Inc. in April, he was able to give only three weeks’ notice. His new company, ShoreTel Inc., was about to launch its initial public offering and needed his expertise. To compensate for the quick departure, however, Healy went out of his way to offer additional assistance, creating a comprehensive, five-page list of his personal responsibilities and action items for Genesis’s CEO and audit committee.

“You have to do two jobs for a while,” says Healy, who has resigned from four companies during his career, including two finance-chief posts. “I couldn’t just check out and not do any work for the three weeks before I left. I couldn’t do that to my staff or my board or my peers.” In fact, Healy helped Genesis multiple times after he took up his post at ShoreTel to make sure things were running smoothly. The extra work paid off. “Genesis felt that I left them in a good position,” he says.

Tread Carefully

How you break the news of your impending departure to the CEO and the board also has to be carefully planned. “You should give a lot of thought to the words you use,” says Jamison, who has resigned for better opportunities and for being asked to do something unethical. “Even if [you're leaving] for ethical reasons, there is no reason to be antagonistic about it,” she says. For example, instead of sounding off to her CEO about his ethics in one case, Jamison simply used an impending reorganization as an opportunity to walk away. “I had already refused to do something and he knew that, so he just said OK.”

The nuances of breaking the news can have lasting effects. Corporate America “is a small world,” says Pam Lassiter, principal at Lassiter Consulting, pointing out that “you might be working together again in some capacity.” And even if you don’t leave on the best of terms, “your future employer can still check you out informally with his or her friends.” In fact, Lassiter advises CFOs to assume all exit conversations could potentially become public information. “A great level of detail shouldn’t be necessary,” she says. “Odds are if you’re resigning because of a difference in approach, the CEO already knows it.”

Telling finance employees may be even more challenging. “They always want to know who they’re going to report to when their boss is leaving,” says Healy, who advises developing a coverage plan before telling the team. In Healy’s case, he crafted a plan that detailed what would change during the transition and who the staff would report to when he left. He then presented the plan to the CEO and audit committee for review before unveiling it to his staff.

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