I’m leaving my full time job at the university after 21 years here. This was my first employer right after college and have been here ever since. Helen Norris, who worked here for many years, wrote a piece about how everyone talks about your first 30-60-90 days at a new job but not much on how to exit your old job. You can read her thought piece here.
But succession planning has always been something I thought about throughout my leadership journey. I often tested it when I took vacation. Could I take vacation without everything blowing up? Did my staff feel confident making decisions without me? Have I given them enough insight to what to look out for?
I never thought I would ever leave the university but I always behaved like I was planning on leaving.
About 10 years ago, I focused my personal training to keep up with the skills and experience out in industry. What were the current buzz words in my field? What was the language people used to describe themselves on resumes? It’s not that I wanted to leave or that I was unhappy with my work here. But I also didn’t want to feel trapped as if the rest of the world had floated by while I sat in the higher ed bubble. I wanted to feel like staying here was a deliberate and calculated choice.
When I first started my career here, I was 22, just graduated from Cal. I met a woman in the department and chatted with her. She told me she had been there for 20 years. My 22-year old jaw dropped unable to comprehend how my entire lifetime could pass that way. I asked her how did 20 years happen. She replied, “I needed a job and next thing I knew 20 years went by.” Picking my jaw up from the ground, I promised myself I would not let 20 years go by without paying attention.
For the most part, this has been true. I’ve been at the university 21 years and I can tell you exactly when I moved to different positions and why. I found myself using an Agile management concept of double-looped learning every 3 years or so:
- Reflecting on the last few years, did I learn what I wanted to learn?
- Looking forward, what else do I want to learn? Or looking forward, where do I need to be to fulfill my entire self? Because like one mentor told me, it’s the Heart + Head + Wallet equation. What does your equation add up to?
- Is this the place to learn what I want? If the answer to #3 was no, then the follow up question:
- How do I get to the place that will provide me the environment and experience to do so?
Each time I said “no” I could have walked away from the university, but each time I reaffirmed my choice, my deliberate and calculated choice to stay here because this was still the place that I could still fulfill my personal and career goals. It’s empowering to feel like that choice is not a trap but an affirmation to the mission and work.
At the same time, in order for me to move to different work, I needed to make sure I always trained my replacement from the beginning. And more often than not, it’s not one person it’s a myriad of people to develop.
When I came back from each vacation, I got a better sense of what I bring to the table and learn what skills and roles I played on a daily basis in my organization. I came to understand if anyone else filled the void while I was gone, so just left it hollow awaiting for my return. Then I would work to cultivate what was missing so I would not be the only one capable of delivering my skills to the table.
I learned while being on the Chancellor’s Staff Advisory Committee that regularly turned over membership that I need to observe the unique gifts people bring to the table and that if I thought those gifts were important to retain, then I needed to learn how to cultivate that skill in me. The next year when they left, I would ask myself, “what would they do?” and then ask “should I take up their reins?”
And as I leave, I’ve given a few what are Michelle’s parting thoughts to many of the groups I’ve participated in, so here are a few that have distilled from there:
- If you think it’s important, keep it going. If not, let it go. It’s ok. There are many things I’ve driven out of passion and belief that it was the right thing to do and it was the right thing that was needed for the university. I personally dislike the continuation of most things due to tradition. Tradition is irrelevant if it isn’t important to today. Everything has a lifespan: people, organization, ideas. It’s ok to let a few of them die to make room for something new.
- Succession planning begins on the first day of the job. It’s really a form of mentorship. Being replaceable does not mean you’re not important or make an impact, it means the organization is strong enough to keep the mission going. Being replaceable doesn’t mean people want to replace you either. In fact, you are likely a crazy assortment of different skills/experiences that it would take several people to replace you; that’s your unique pixie dust.
- Be honest with the 3rd question and make sure to answer the 4th question. Once you say “no” to #3, I hate to say it, but it’s downhill from there. And make sure you answer #3 otherwise you get stuck in this limbo of I guess I’ll stay.
- Sometimes to obtain real growth, you have to give up everything you thought you were and everything you do. I was given a rare opportunity to completely reinvent myself that I couldn’t do staying in higher ed. When you’re younger you get those chances all the time, less so when you’re older. As someone who has loved being on the “bleeding edge of learning” it was a shot I couldn’t pass up. What you do or did, what your title is, is not who you are, you’ve just chosen to form yourself in that way. But if I rearranged the same blocks, what would I get?
- If you did your job well, everyone will be ok. Because this university is filled with talented and passionate people. The answer has always been in the room.
It is bittersweet leaving as I have loved the work and people and still do. But my Heart+Head+Wallet equation has changed and for now my journey must change too.
Michelle will continue to be an instructor in the Agile Management program at UC Berkeley Extension.