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3 Leadership Lessons From the Pope's Exit

Pope Benedict XVI will abdicate his post late tomorrow night. Scandals aside, what can you learn from the way the church is handling his departure?
Pope Benedict XVI disembarks the Popemobile in St Peter's Square on February 27, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican after his final address to a public audience.
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As Pope Benedict XVI concludes his final week on the job, you can marvel at some of its eccentric details of his departure: the clothing, jewelry, the red shoes.

Yet the strange and ornate ritual prompts a question relevant to you (even if you're not religious, in any way): How should you handle the departure of your key people?

When I ran software companies, I remember vividly the chill that ran down my spine any time someone said he needed to have a private word with me. It usually meant that he was leaving. It is always hard for any CEO not to take this personally--even though, quite often, it isn't personal. But before you bow to what appears inevitable, ask yourself and your colleagues a few key questions.

1. Is Leaving the Answer?

Is a move to another employer essential to this individual's professional development? Are there other opportunities or needs within the business that might supply the same stretch? Many people believe they have to leave to grow--but it isn't always true. Check assumptions now before it's too late.

2. It's Not You; It's Me

Are there issues within the business that are driving talent away? If there are, however painful it is, you'll need to recognize them as early as possible. Sometimes the problem is other people; sometime it is you. Now is the time to find out. The great benefit of departing employees is that, without an agenda, they may now tell you the unvarnished truth.

3. Once It's Settled 

Should the exit be fast or slow? There aren't any golden rules here and there are many ways for people to leave. Do your best to make this period fruitful and positive for everyone, however annoyed or frustrated you feel.

I will never forget learning that one of my junior employees was leaving, in search of professional growth. I hadn't seen his ambition. But I remember waking up in the middle of the night and realizing with a shock that he hadn't considered the options he had in the business. The next morning, I asked him about this, and he acknowledged that they had never crossed his mind. Over the course of the next week, he and I re-defined his position so that he would have more authority and learn more--and he took some financial advice. The net result was he stayed and did a brilliant job and was able, a few years later, to buy his home.

It doesn't always work out this way, of course. People need to move on and you often want them to, in order to create opportunities for new hires and internal candidates. But however you spin it, departures are emotional, and it's foolish to imagine otherwise. Allow time for the cement to dry.

And one last consideration: just as the Pope will still be at the Vatican, people usually stay friends with some of their former colleagues. Never imagine that just because someone has left, his influence has gone. Employees are typically more loyal to each other than to a company--which is all the more reason to make every departure, however complex, as positive as you can.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Feb 27, 2013

MARGARET HEFFERNAN

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.




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