Passing the Torch

Passing the Torch

As I write this it is May and there are congratulatory cards sitting, ready to mail, on my desk. I have a niece, a nephew-in-law, a grandson “step-in” and a friend’s granddaughter all poised to celebrate a graduation. I can imagine the strains of Pomp and Circumstance, packed auditoriums and phones at the video ready. Ah, transitions!

We have many kinds of transitions in life, some intended to happen just once, like marriage or high school graduation or a first job. And there are many transitions in our work lives; a new job, a new role, a reduction in hours, a job-related location move, a layoff, a firing, retirement. If we care about the work we do or the organizations we work for, it is likely that we also care about what happens with the work we did at the time we say goodbye to it. Will it live on somehow? What is our legacy?

Career handoff is the process of intentionally sharing the wisdom, “transferring the knowledge” described by Malloch and Porter-O’Grady [1] of one’s career with the next person in a role, in order to preserve what was learned, and continue the momentum of achievements from the past. Though they apply the notion of this handoff to a career’s worth of information, it works in many other situations as well . . . short-term jobs, role changes, new assignments, even layoffs.

So what is the difference between the intentional sharing of wisdom and the way things often occur in organizations today? There may be an overall lack of succession planning, or no awareness of what there is to be transferred. Sometimes there is limited time or processes provided for the transfer to happen. Perhaps there’s a lack of recognition that this sharing may be as important for a retiring employee as a retirement party and a memento. Maybe the organization doesn’t recognize the issues the new person may face as they try to figure out things on their own, without the information and support of the leaving person. Whatever the organizational reasons, there are things that individuals can do to make for smooth transitions.

Commitment to a profession

If you are a member of a practicing profession such as nursing, teaching, legal, or social work for example, there may be an imperative to advance the profession by making sure that important lessons learned in one’s career are preserved as the next layer of professional practice expectations develop.

Are you the one passing the torch?

The leaving person needs to reflect on the question, “What knowledge and wisdom do I have that is important to pass on?” It is probably easier to identify what is unnecessary to pass on, like negative past history, how functional structures work, or how to do something (because the new person will find their own way). What is shared also depends on the type of transition. If it is a short-term experience, or a change within the organization, less needs to be passed on. In these situations, a handoff tool/checklist can be really useful. Perhaps the organization uses one. If not, you could develop it. Useful checklists often include important people to know, process details, technology information, current expected and recent past results. [2]

In the case of retirement from a career, a focus on the big picture with some of these broader questions can also be useful.

  • What did I learn about myself in the roles I occupied?
  • How has the role I occupied changed, and how will it be different for the new person? What changes have I witnessed during the time I have worked?
  • How do I evaluate them . . .  are they helpful or not to what we are trying to achieve? What have I accomplished?
  • What do I think is critical to continue working on?
  • What is the most important piece of advice I can offer?
  • What would I do differently if I could do it over?

If the torch is being passed to you

If you have the opportunity to have face to face discussion with the incumbent, lucky you! Take advantage of all the time available for this knowledge transfer. The person who is leaving will likely have much to share about the job demands and the role, even though it could change once you are in it. There can be valuable knowledge to gain if the person leaving is willing to share and sincerely wants to leave a legacy by helping you. Remember, too, that what is being shared is information from one person’s point of view, and that you are expected to shape things from your perspective.

Beyond information from the incumbent and the guidance of a manager, what kind of ongoing support could be useful to you? Do you have the luxury of being able to shadow your predecessor for a time in the role? Can you ask for that? Maybe you are in an organization that offers succession development programs. For many, this is an ideal time to find a coach or a mentor.

What if there’s no one to pass the torch to?

If you are leaving a role or organization quickly without a named replacement, or if the role you occupied has been discontinued or morphed into something you don’t recognize, then the personal touch and transition is not possible. In these situations, record your thoughts . . . make a video, write them down in a journal, keep them somehow for posterity. . . you never know how useful they could be to you in the future. Leave them with the organization if the separation has been a positive one. And if you are someone with a long career, consider publishing your ideas in a professional publication.

How to let go

When leaving a satisfying role or career, much will depend on how you have prepared for this moment. There is no doubt that even in the very best of circumstances, this can be an emotional time. Whether you are leaving a shorter term position, been laid off or fired, or are retiring, you will have questions about the next phase of your life. If you need to work and are not clear about what to do next, anxiety is normal. If you are retiring, the awareness that there is less time in your life to make an impact cannot be denied.

In any case, do you have a vision for your time after leaving? Making the shift to a new role in retirement is much easier if you have a vision for what you have always wanted to do when you weren’t concerned about earning money. Spend time imagining how your days will feel, and if there are benefits of your working life that you want to continue.  Keep important personal connections, yet separate yourself from the inevitable organizational politics. Offering your time as a mentor is one way to keep your finger on the pulse of the work you valued, which will help to develop others. Networking with other retirees outside of your work area, looking for volunteer roles with a purpose that ignites your passion help make the transition graceful.

And if your work life continues, maybe this is an opportunity to let go of the old by considering a new type of role, a new location, or a career change. Identify what you enjoyed about the job you are leaving and remind yourself that new beginnings, though anxiety-producing, provide many opportunities to learn and master new things. Explore the idea that you could let go of the way you used to do some things in the past . . . how you conducted a department meeting, or communicated with your direct reports for example. . . and try a different approach. Even though you are no longer in an old role that you may have loved, the positive experiences you had are something that no one can take away. And as in retirement, it is important to nurture the meaningful personal connections of your past. Avoiding a focus on old organizational politics will help you let go.

And finally, a last recommendation. In any situation of job or career transition, be it positive or negative for you, resist the temptation to define yourself by the label of the old role. You are more complex than the work you did. There is much more to your life than a job, an organization or a career. Though a career can infuse large parts of your life with focus and meaning, your career is not you. It is one part of your total life experience.

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[1] Malloch, K. And Porter O’Grady, T (eds). (2016). The career handoff: a healthcare leader’s guide to knowledge and wisdom transfer across generations. Sigma Theta Tau International. Malloch and Porter O’Grady’s book contains the writings of a variety of leaders in healthcare who address the need and processes for successful handoffs. The Career Handoff helps leaders “proactively preserve and pass on their valuable wisdom and knowledge to new generations. With an approach that emphasizes mentoring and sustainability of expertise, . . . book aims to facilitation smooth transitions and (the) continued viability. . .”  Book back cover

[2]  https://usaidlearninglab.org/sites/default/files/resource/files/Shell_KM_Job%20Handover%20Checklist.pdf (accessed via web 5/13/19)

 

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