Similarly, Wijnberg presented her staff with a plan of what they needed to accomplish in the eight months before a new CFO took over. “I told them all at the same time so the message didn’t get mixed [up] in the process,” she says. That helped keep them “engaged in what we were doing, what we were thinking, and what we needed to get done before I left.”
How much you reveal about the reasons for your departure — especially if it is contentious — is another delicate matter. “If you say anything negative it could potentially demoralize the staff and likely get back to the CEO,” says Mills. However, he adds, “there’s nothing wrong with constructive criticism, or leaving on good terms while laying out some grounds for improvement.”
Wijnberg was particularly cautious because there had been multiple leadership changes at Marsh and she didn’t want to convey anything negative about senior management. Even though differences in philosophy had an impact on her decision to leave, in presenting that decision to her team Wijnberg tried not to make it personal.
“Leaving as a finance chief always causes [at least] a little crisis. even if it’s done elegantly,” says Wijnberg. “But I learned that you have to avoid sending mixed messages about why you’re leaving to avoid unnecessary drama.”
In the end, professionalism should win out. While CFOs know there is a right way and a wrong way to leave, “it’s easy to get distracted by a better opportunity,” says Wijnberg, who took a year off and is currently partner and chief administrative officer at Aquiline Capital Holdings LLC, a New York–based investment firm headed by former Marsh CEO Greenberg. “Every CFO should come to the realization that it’s important to leave the right way and that you can’t forget about what you left behind.”
Kate Plourd is editorial intern at CFO.
What should your new employer know about your old one?
CFOs leave jobs for many reasons, from firings for cause to disagreements over strategy to the proverbial “personal” ones. That raises the delicate matter of how to tell potential employers why they left their previous post. The best approach is to “answer the question in a way that’s honest but not damaging, or employers will get suspicious,” says Pam Lassiter, principal at Lassiter Consulting.
Handling the question, especially when a departure was contentious, is more of an art than a science, says Tatum LLC’s Cynthia Jamison. “From a moral perspective, you should probably not share grievances or details of negative circumstances freely,” she says, even if a nondisparagement agreement has been signed. Lassiter adds that the best approach is to simply state the best skills and relationships you developed at your previous job and keep details about differences of opinion to a minimum.
As for CFOs who leave on good terms, there’s no reason to be mum. “The more information you can give a prospective employer about who you are [the more it] helps them decide whether or not you’re right for the position,” says Jamison. — K.P.
The Bottom Line
- Tell your CEO or president first that you’re leaving
- Do it face-to-face and plan what you’ll say ahead of time
- Volunteer to help train a replacement CFO
- Be the first to tell the members of your staff
- Stay productive during your last days/weeks on the job
- Finish up any incomplete projects
- Take your CEO out to lunch a month after you’ve left to tie up loose ends
- Go into great detail about why you’re leaving
- Resign in the middle of a company crisis
- Leave before or after a critical financial deadline
- Air your grievances to the entire company