Friday, August 14, 2015

How to Quit Your Job

"Take this job and shove it."

Sure, it makes a catchy hook for a song and maybe helps us get through some of the rougher work days as we imagine ourselves boldly walking into the boss's office, doling out these choice words, and walking out.

But however satisfying in the moment or the imagination, quitting in a huff certainly isn't the most elegant solution for dealing with a challenging job situation. Not only does it hurt your employer (assuming you were meaningfully contributing to your organization's mission), it can also contribute to your reputation as a quitter or a hothead--or worse.

More typical is the quiet job search where you put out feelers while still employed. Then, after securing a new role, you give notice to your current employer, which can leave them scrambling to fill the gap you will leave after a traditional two-week notice.

I just ended a job using neither of those approaches and it worked out more perfectly than I could have hoped. My departure was such a success that more than one colleague suggested I write about it. Writing about quitting doesn't sound like much fun, but I'll do my best to provide some perspective on where and how you can think about making a carefully crafted transition that leaves both you and your employer in a better position.

I will say from the outset, that the story might have turned out very differently without the amazing partnership and leadership demonstrated by our current President and CEO, Dr. Doug Fridsma, and AMIA's longtime COO, Karen Greenwood. Together, we built a relationship based on on trust and transparency. Without those two essential elements, I would never recommend taking this particular path. But if you can build that trust and maintain clear, bidirectional communications along the way, I believe your chances are high for achieving an outcome that is beneficial for both your career and the organization you are leaving.

The specific circumstances leading up to my decision to seek a new role are better told over a pint. The salient issue was that I had been managing two distinct roles at AMIA, which had been my professional home since 1997 and my employer since December of 2012. As VP of Policy and Development, I was responsible for AMIA's public policy efforts, shaping both the legislative and regulatory landscapes as they related to informatics. I was also responsible for AMIA's corporate membership program. Both of these jobs had been separate roles until about two years ago when our VP of Public Policy resigned. Rather than add another staff member, we decided to combine this role with my corporate relations and business development responsibilities. 

This dual role arrangement had always been challenging, requiring a significant amount of give and take between the two competing interests of expanding AMIA's influence and growing AMIA's bottom line. But with 2015 came a Republican-led legislature bent on introducing new legislation around Health IT, precision medicine, electronic health records, and health information exchange. There was no way I would be able to deliver on both roles effectively. Something had to give. AMIA is a small but mighty professional association, so we couldn't simply add more layers of staff without compromising our budget.

After looking at the situation from many angles, in the fall of 2014 I made a recommendation to Doug (who had just joined AMIA as our new President and CEO) and Karen: split my job back into two distinct roles of policy and business development.

There is an obvious snag in this proposal: I couldn't split myself in two. So my choices were to stay and take one of the two jobs (along with a significant cut in salary) or get out of the way (i.e., leave AMIA) so we could rightsize the roles and responsibilities. I added another point to my proposal and asked that AMIA give me the 2015 calendar year to find a new job, during which time I would keep them informed about my prospects so they could better plan the timing of my replacements and so I would have a long enough runway to do a careful search for a new opportunity. 

The more typical approach of the quiet search was less appealing for a couple of reasons: first, there was a high likelihood that wherever I landed, it would be with an organization that is already a part of AMIA--perhaps even one of our existing corporate members. This dynamic would make a search awkward at best and toxic at worst. Second, and perhaps more importantly, dropping out of these two mission-critical roles for AMIA at such an important time and with little notice would put the organization in a challenging position. I'm not so arrogant as to believe that AMIA would have failed without me, but it would have put a real dent in the progress we made in building a strong corporate membership program and we would have lost some very tangible opportunities to shape the legislative and regulatory landscape. 

Doug took my initial proposal and, as he learned more about the organization and our needs, he added to it. Doug and Karen worked together to develop a new proposed structure for both departments. His first hire was a new VP of Public Policy, Jeff Smith, who as luck would have it, became available from CHIME with deep HIT policy experience and a strong reputation on the Hill and with the media as a strong thinker and analyst. I could spend many more paragraphs describing how Jeff was the right person at the right time. Suffice it to say, he hit the ground running. On his first day, we got a call from the Senate HELP staff about our EHR 2020 paper. Seventeen days later, our incoming Board Chair was testifying before the full Committee at their first hearing on the future of electronic health records. Jeff's been going gangbusters ever since.

I had been keeping my eyes and ears open for opportunities and had started a couple of dialogues, but wanted to wait until June 1st to start my search in earnest. The timing was better for AMIA as it fit better into our natural business cycle, plus it gave Doug time to settle in, get his own sense of what AMIA needed in the roles I would be handing off, and put his own design on the process. I kept both Doug and Karen informed about my progress each week and tried to provide some relative odds about how close to a new employment agreement I was. We looked at some contingency plans about my serving as a part-time consultant to AMIA in the event that they didn't fill the roles as quickly as they hoped, giving us maximum flexibility to move through the transition. This arrangement also gave me the opportunity to consider small-firm or independent consulting, with AMIA serving as an anchor client for the first months of my move. 

It turned out that this transition option was not really needed. A new opportunity with CRISP, Maryland's health information exchange, emerged and received state funding sooner than anticipated. During the interview process, I shared my arrangement with AMIA and included some contingency planning for helping AMIA on a very part-time basis as part of our negotiations. Like most hiring employers, they were eager to have me start sooner than later, but they expressed appreciation for the commitment I was showing to my current employer; I believe this ultimately helped rather than hurt my candidacy. I accepted a role as Program Director of CRISP's newly minted Integrated Care Network infrastructure project. I'll say more about my new job in a future post.

Around this same time, AMIA made its second hire. Jenn Novesky joined the AMIA staff as Director of Corporate Relations on August 3rd, 2015. My last day at AMIA was the following Monday, which gave me a full week to onboard Jenn in her new and admittedly complex role of selling and fulfilling corporate memberships for AMIA using a took I built that we affectionately call The Matrix.

The Bottom Line

Many people measure leadership and success by what they accomplish in a role. I'm proud to say that I grew AMIA's corporate membership program in each of the three years for which I was responsible. And I am proud of the work we did to advance AMIA's policy interests. But I think a better marker of success is how you leave an organization and what happens after you're gone.

So I am even more proud of how I am leaving AMIA, with solid talent in place who are well equipped to effectively do the jobs they have been given and the have room to make these jobs their own. And I am deeply grateful for Doug's and Karen's leadership and friendship as we managed this transition as a team--with transparency, trust and mutual respect. Together, we took a difficult situation and made it work to mutual advantage. 

As I said at the beginning, there are many job situations where this type of transition is simply not possible. But I'm glad to share an example of how it can work when you build healthy and respectful relationships with your leaders, then build on that trust to create a strategic and flexible framework that makes room for a more optimal solution.

Have you had an experience with leaving a job that turned out well? Do you have other suggestions about how to approach a job transition when you're in a critical role? Leave a comment and tell about it!

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