How to quit like a boss

What we can learn from the exit strategies of Raghuram Rajan, Nikesh Arora and Lionel Messi


Lionel Messi announced an emotional, teary retirement from Argentina’s national team. Photo: Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports
Lionel Messi announced an emotional, teary retirement from Argentina’s national team. Photo: Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

The world’s best central banker, the highest paid corporate executive of Indian origin and the world’s best footballer said bye-bye in an epidemic that seems to be, so far, targeting men in high places (British Prime Minister David Cameron and Indian media mogul Aveek Sarkar were also hit by this bug). Serena, please hang in there even if you don’t win Wimbledon.

Raghuram Rajan and Nikesh Arora announced they were quitting their high-profile jobs last fortnight, using a similar yet different style to say their piece. And before the world could finish exchanging conspiracy theories on why Lionel Messi missed that penalty in the Copa América final against Chile—and before I could finish writing this column—the 29-year-old footballer shocked everyone by announcing his retirement from Argentina’s national team.

The three men share a few things—they are all stars in their respective fields, all idols for their contemporaries, colleagues and the youth, and all in high-pressure jobs involving endless scrutiny by employers/investors (and the world). As the ceaseless debate on what “really” happened plays out, let’s look at how these men quit and what we can learn from their exit strategies.

Central bank governor Rajan wrote a letter to his team saying that though he had been open to continuing for a second term, “on due reflection, and after consultation with the government, I want to share with you that I will be returning to academia when my term as Governor ends on September 4, 2016”. The Reserve Bank of India posted the letter on its website for all to see. Essentially, the governor pre-empted any statement by his employer (who was dithering about giving him a second term)—and ensured sudden death for the he’s staying-he’s going betting pool. Classy.

Arora, former Google star, the heir apparent of SoftBank Group Corp. and the world’s third highest paid company executive, said he was quitting because he didn’t want to be CEO-in-waiting indefinitely. Dissatisfied investors were a more likely reason for his quitting, reports said.

While Rajan stayed away from the press, Arora did what was befitting of any digital age hero—he answered all sorts of questions on Twitter. “He made his reasons very clear, he had a story and he stuck by it. He’s ensuring a smooth transition and he’s declared he’ll be around for any handover,” says Sonal Agrawal, a managing partner at executive search firm Accord India.

Agrawal says she worries if a senior executive leaves a job without notice. “Our antenna goes up. Maybe he was asked to go? Didn’t he have to hand over stuff?”

One other difference: Rajan knew where he was headed next, Arora was vague and talked about taking time out with his one-year-old son. You decide which approach works for you (and don’t let the fact that you’ve got a while to go before you hit Arora’s annual $73 million—around Rs.496 crore—salary influence you).

Both resignations were graceful and cleanly executed. In both cases, the resigning employee was in control of the narrative, undoubtedly assisted by his employer (in his letter, Rajan says he had a meeting with the government. It’s likely he negotiated that he would make the announcement, says Agrawal, who also points out that neither employer issued any statements contradicting their employee’s story).

Unlike Messi’s emotional resignation, which came shortly after he provided his fans a heartbreaking, indelible image of tears and sadness, the other two men kept their emotions in check. “When you’re leaving there’s always a certain amount of heartache. Maintain grace and dignity through the process,” advises Agrawal.

Of course, Messi is 29. There’s no comparison but I remember exiting a job at 28, in tears and swearing never to become attached to an office cubicle ever again. I don’t think I felt that sense of righteous indignation in any of my subsequent job transitions. No more family pictures or personalized desk accessories for me—though I did lose my heart to my fuchsia sofa in an office several years later.

Also, it’s okay for Cameron to take moral responsibility for Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union but did Messi need to do the same for Argentina’s losses? Shouldn’t that rest with the manager in a game like football? Messi deserves better, as fans said on Twitter (Aside: Please google Roger Federer tears).

Some PhDs in Resignation Letter Analysis felt Rajan focused too much on achievements during his term as governor but Hema Ravichandar, a strategic human resources consultant and a Mint columnist, believes his intention was more to congratulate his team for a job well done than to crow about himself. “Two things. It’s good for him to put out what he did because having worked with the government you have to be discreet about what you’re doing and the only time you can put out what you’re doing is at a time like this. Also, he wanted to make the team feel good. He wanted to put a structure and frame to the achievements of the group that stood by him and worked with him and believed in him,” says Ravichandar.

Never burn bridges, is her big learning from a lifetime spent observing people quit and join jobs. “There’s no point being unpleasant. You don’t know how things might change. Also, you don’t want your relationships with peers, employees, internal stakeholders and investors as collateral damage of the exit,” adds Ravichandar, who went back to Infosys Technologies after a two-year break. “You may have a very good second run.”

I hope someone’s giving Messi the same advice.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable every fortnight. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.

Also Read: Priya’s previous Lounge columns

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