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Hello, I Must Be Going

Now I’ve seen everything! In a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal, Joann S. Lublin devotes an entire column to the subject of how to leave a job. Apparently, with the entire world desperately trying to get a job or keep a job, somewhere out there in cubicle land are a group of people who can’t figure out how to get themselves fired.

Needless to say, these clueless, nameless individuals are executive types. So if you’ve harbored a suspicion that company management has no idea what they are doing, you have once again been proven right. They may be able to chew gum and walk at the same time, but apparently they can’t simultaneously chew gum and walk out the front door.

To be fair, the quandary these executive problem children face is how to leave a job almost immediately after taking a job. These are premature evacuators, which explains Ms. Lublin’s headline, “New Job a Mistake? Tips for a Fast Exit.”

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In a world where newly hired executives are supposed to stay in place long enough for cobwebs to grow on their wing-tips, it is considered bad form to make a hasty retreat before the ink is dry on the memo celebrating your arrival. Such a vanishing act is embarrassing for the company, which probably spent oodles of time and money in executive search and now must announce that the one person in the universe who can save the company has seen the company and has taken off for parts unknown.

Or for parts known. Take John Coletta. Real Goods Solar, Inc. selected Mr. Coletta as their chief financial officer. Five months later, Coletta packed his green eye-shade and left for a similar position at Quiznos. (What do we learn from this story? Mr. Coletta has clearly never eaten at Quiznos.)

While being left at the altar can be embarrassing for the corporate bride, making too fast a move can be devastating to the career of the reluctant groom. As Lublin writes, “Leaving a plum management post less than a year after being hired is a risky but often necessary move. It requires careful action because inevitably, someone will be unhappy about the fast quit.”

Those unhappy people could include the hiring manager, plus all the candidates inside the company that were passed over for the job, and, of course, the U.S. Post Office, which now has to stick on a whole new bunch of change-of-address stickers on the exiting executive’s subscription to The Indecisive Manager.

As for the dearly departed, he or she has to come up with a reason they found the grass so much greener in someone else’s backyard. Without a persuasive story, cautions executive recruiter John Keller, “you look like an opportunist instead of a business builder.”

You would think that one story that would definitely go down easy would be something like, “Hey, the new guys paid me more.” But in the world of the big-time executive, a few hundred thou one way or the other is not supposed to make a difference. To play in this league, you have to position yourself as a visionary.

“Culture mismatch” is my favorite of the “acceptable excuses” recommended by the experts. Such an explanation was used by John Browett when leaving Apple after six months. “Their culture and strategic direction was different than what he envisioned.”

Certainly, you can be sympathetic to this explanation. After all, you envision a culture that allows you to get paid for loafing all day, with bonuses for playing video games and complaining. As for management, they envision a culture in which you are expected to actually do some work. Talk about a mismatch!

While the excuse may be bogus, recruiters caution the runaway executive not to let a short stint drop off their resume. I agree. Not all companies are looking for Steady Eddy-type managers who have proven they can commit. In large banking concerns, for example, the ability to jump in and out of a position is an essential executive ability.

One day, you’re in your luxurious office on Wall Street. The next day, you’re in your luxurious office on K Street. And the next day you’re in a tiny jail cell in a federal penitentiary. For an executive to survive those kinds of changes and then start the same process all over again after being released, well, that’s the kind of fast-exiting skill set that gets you the big bucks.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com.

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