Lessons from Pope Benedict XVI's exit

Pope Benedict XVI addresses faifthful for the last time upon arrival in Castel Gandolfo on February 28, 2013. Once he steps down later in the day, Pope Benedict XVI will begin his retirement in the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, a sumptuous villa outside Rome with ornamental gardens, breathtaking views and its own farm. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE,FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Image

Commentary:

(MoneyWatch) Now that Pope Benedict XVI has stepped down, trading his red shoes for brown, his exit prompts a question we can all relate to: What's the best way to leave a job?

Many of us have fantasized at some time about storming out in a huff. But few of us do it, and I'd argue that it is always a bad idea. The temporary satisfaction is miniscule compared to the long term reputational damage you leave behind.

Instead, it's better to leave calmly and with care, lips tightly zipped. However tempting it may be to start slagging off colleagues and bosses, the gossip will always travel and leave bad feeling behind. The better course, for you and your reputation, is to think about what was great about the job: What did you learn, who do you want to stay in contact with, what connections might prove valuable in your next job? Focusing on these, and securing the prized relationships before your departure, will make you feel that the last few days or weeks are positive. You are a great deal more likely to be missed when you're gone.

One striking feature of Benedict's departure is how fast it has been. This is even more remarkable in Europe, where the notice period required of mid- or senior-level executives typically runs anywhere beween one and six months, much longer than is normal in the U.S. So which is better -- the slow burn or the quick exit?

For operational reasons, the slow burn is often a lot safer. If you have complex responsibilities, it's far better to hand them over methodically. I'm not sure that ever needs six months, but it usually requires more than a few weeks. Moreover, the time between announcing your departure and effecting it can prove quite fruitful. You have expertise but no agenda. Your insights may have a clarity and an objectivity that can be refreshing and valuable. The so-called "lame duck" period need not be lame at all.

On the other hand, once everyone knows you're going, many will wish you gone. This is likely to be as emotional as practical. However much people may understand your reasons for leaving, most of your colleagues will be quietly peeved. They may envy you the choice you've had, and they may feel you're leaving them in the lurch. In any event, they will imagine that you can't do much for them any more. In this sense, they're wrong. The best of them will help you -- and you can help them -- far into the future. Never leave so fast that you don't realize this until you're gone.

As for Benedict, the great temptation he will face is getting sucked back into Vatican politics. Since he's supposed to be infallible, he should know already what many of us learn the hard way: Leaving the politics behind is the true cause for celebration.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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