As a manager, what should you be doing when one of your reports is leaving the company? I believe one of the more important things you can do is the exit talk, a more candid conversation about your report and their career.
This is something I started doing as a budding team lead. I’ve had an exit talk with two of my last three interns. By the end of today, I’ll have had one more. It’s even more important to have these with your full-times (because you’ve had a longer relationship), but I’m still a green enough manager that I haven’t seen any of my full-times leave the company yet.
I like to have have these instead of a 1-1 during someone’s last week. We’ll take a walk through the nearby park and talk. There are three main things I focus on in this conversation: recapping someone’s tenure, exchanging feedback, and talking about future plans.
Regardless of why someone’s leaving, my hope is to end things on a more positive note and to share any thoughts I might have that will help someone with their future career.
The first part of every talk is to recap what someone’s done during their time at $COMPANY. This isn’t intended to be a laundry list of everything someone’s done—we just want to capture some highlights.
For an intern, I focus on their accomplishments.
These are primarily things that they’ve learned and gained some degree of mastery over—often technologies and/or company-specific systems they’ve worked with. All of my interns have goals for their internship, which are quite natural to bring up as well.
For a full-time, I’d likely focus on their impact.
Impact, in this case, will typically be someone’s legacy—what will we remember them for doing? At its most basic, this will be the systems that someone’s helped to build or maintain.
More interesting, however, are how they’ve impacted our culture and work. They might have helped create or adopt technical practices or processes that made things better for the team or for the company. They might have identified and solved difficult or annoying technical issues that others avoided.
Essentially, I’m looking to identify and talk about the contributions that are uniquely about them—things that probably wouldn’t have happened had we hired someone else.
Should you talk about what someone did poorly? I believe the answer is yes. I don’t believe that you’re doing someone favors by ignoring where they’ve done poorly, but we’re also not trying to harp on someone’s failures here. Again, I want to end on a generally positive note.
With this in mind, I would aim to only talk about significant issues—likely recurring things that you believe indicate some kind of weakness in what someone’s good at. These are, presumably, things that aren’t new. You’ve already discussed them during the normal course of work.
The next part is feedback. This is two-directional. You want to give feedback that helps someone better understand themselves and/or their career. You want to get feedback about how you’re doing.
Feedback for them focuses on their personal trends and current experience.
Personal trends are basically strengths and weaknesses—the types of work that they are good or bad at. This will probably be backed by what you talked about when recapping.
You can talk about personal traits as well, but I’d be more careful there. I would probably limit this to just things that will help improve someone’s self-awareness—internal or external. Internal self-awareness deals with things they didn’t know about themselves that help or hurt their performance. External self-awareness deals with what they do and how this causes others to perceive them.
Current experience acknowledges that they’re on a journey. You have something that they don’t, and that something is perspective. You’ve seen how others have performed in their position—you know what is considered good, normal, or poor for someone in their position.
You are able to recognize things such as, “Overall, Fred kinda sucks at X [compared to me/my standards], but this is normal because it’s typically hard to grasp for college juniors.”
They don’t have this perspective. So tell them. Let them know that the thing they’re struggling with is completely normal, they should keep working at it, and it will make sense in about 2 years. Let them know that they’re really good at, relative to others in a similar position. Let them know where they had more trouble than is normal.
Ask about how you’re doing, both positive and negative.
Because they won’t be expecting to share feedback with you, it might be hard to request useful feedback. Unfortunately, time-boxing isn’t as useful here since you want a more general picture. You could try probing about different areas that you’re interested in getting more feedback about.
A nice thing about exit talks is that they can help people be more candid—they might be more willing to share criticisms that they otherwise wouldn’t have been willing to talk about.
Finally, the talk will turn to their future plans.
With interns, there’s often a lot of confusion and anxiety over where they should work once they graduate. Where useful, I try to help them understand their different options.
For example, if we’re at a medium-sized company, I might explain the differences between a start-up, us, and a Google.
Of course, I’m biased. I try to limit this—I’m naturally optimistic about $COMPANY, but I won’t shy away from explaining our weaker points or the opportunities that you won’t be able to find at the company. I don’t want to trick interns into coming back, I want them to come back because this is where they want to work.
Intern or not, the point of all of this is to help the person gain more perspective on how they should approach their future career to be more successful. Ideally, the combination of recapping, feedback, and discussion helps identify that they’ll excel when they to do X and they’ll struggle when they have to do Y. This lets them know the situations that they should seek out or avoid.
You might come up with a high-level, strategic takeaway—companies that do Z are probably good/bad fits, because…
Or, you could come up with something more tactical—try to avoid handling support tickets as you enjoy tackling hard technical problems and you don’t have a knack/interest in helping users to troubleshoot using our software.
Hopefully, your perspective will help your departing report make good decisions for their career. After all, as a manager, isn’t it your job to help them succeed?