Telling your boss that you have decided to take another position in another department or with a different company can be a major undertaking. In order to go about this conversation the right way, you need to have thought through your situation and prepared for your boss’ response.

When you don’t prepare and you head into the resignation conversation without a plan, you risk harming your team and your career. To avoid such an outcome, here is a look at what type of planning you need to do, what specific steps you can take to ensure a smooth transition, and one manager’s experience in trying to do the right thing when it came time to move on.

Planning is crucial
The steps leading up to a conversation with the supervisor are as important as the conversation itself. Among the first things to examine are the reasons behind the job change.

“It is extremely important to look at the big picture and to choose wisely and act from a plan,” advised Kenneth Christian, Ph.D., author of Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement (Regan Books/Harper Collins). IT managers “really need to reflect on their overall situation, on the big picture of their life and where the job fits in,” said Christian.

One method of leaving that IT managers should certainly avoid is simply marching into the boss’ office and resigning without any forethought or explanation.

“To leave in a huff is the worst thing that you can do for the company and the worst thing you can ultimately do for your career because that reputation is going to follow you,” explained Christian.

IT managers need to ask themselves these questions before making any decisions about whether to stay or go:

  • Where do I want to be?
  • What gives me a sense of purpose?
  • What satisfies me about the job I’m in now?
  • What brings me dissatisfaction?
  • What have I contributed that’s been fulfilling?
  • What have I done that hasn’t been fulfilling?

This shouldn’t be a one-time exercise, either, noted Christian. People in charge of their careers regularly think about aspirations and discuss them with the boss at natural junctures—such as annual or quarterly reviews.

Taking your boss into account
In creating a plan for career growth or in changing roles, many IT managers look for a lateral or vertical opportunity at their present employer. In that situation, the first sounding board should usually be the direct supervisor, according to Rose Jonas, Ph.D., career counselor and president of the consulting firm The Jonas Company and the author of Can I Lie on My Resume?: Strategies that Win the Career Game from Morrison Publishing.

In these types of job change discussion situations, following protocol may not work despite your best efforts. For instance, if a boss is hostile to an IT manager, the boss may try to block any internal moves within the company. Worse yet, an IT manager announcing a desire to transfer could suddenly become an easy target in the next round of layoffs, especially if the boss is a vindictive type.

You have to assess whether your boss will try to hinder or hurt your attempts to move on, according to Jonas. If the boss is likely to be understanding about a move, then go to the boss first and explain that an opportunity may exist in another department. If, on the other hand, the boss is likely to act as a saboteur, then go to the other department first. If that department is interested in you moving over, “your current boss will have a hard time putting the screws to you because [the move has] already been done organizationally,” said Jonas.

Assuming the new department expresses real interest, then it’s best to immediately tell your current boss that you’ve got an opportunity elsewhere. “You always have to remember that word travels like lightning in organizations,” said Jonas. “It’s better if the word comes from you.”

Don’t leave this sensitive communication to e-mail, either.

“It’s better if you can do it face-to-face,” because it shows that you are respectful of your boss’ position, said Jonas. This advice applies as well to executives who are considering leaving a company altogether.

Steps for a successful transition
Regardless of whether you want to move vertically, horizontally, or externally, you should present clear, but general reasons for the move to your boss to avoid creating hostility.

The manager should also be prepared to help the boss put together a transition plan. To help create a smooth transition, you should:

  • Define and agree upon a reasonable period of notice—not less than two weeks and generally not more than six.
  • Offer to help interview and train a replacement, and be open to the possibility of consulting during a transition period.
  • Offer to work overtime in order to document current projects and agreements and then have colleagues review those documents for thoroughness.
  • Document promises made to direct reports and get assurance from supervisors that such promises will be honored. This is especially important to preserve an IT manager’s reputation among peers and subordinates.
  • Understand how the supervisor will announce the transition and abide by the plan. It may be less disruptive for a supervisor to announce the transition than to have it leaked around the water cooler.
  • After the transition meeting, immediately write a memo to the boss that outlines the conversation.

One manager’s experience
One morning—after nearly a year of talking to confidants and mulling it over—former MIS director Mitchell D. Garvis woke up with the intention of resigning his position at a security firm in Montreal, Canada.

Garvis had initiated several conversations with bosses during the previous year in which he expressed concerns about the high level of tension around the company. He suggested courses of action and often steered the conversation around to his own career progression. As a one-person team in charge of MIS, he realized he had little opportunity for career growth.

“I was, in Army terms, a general, and I knew that there was no way for me to have anything higher,” said Garvis. His attempts to stretch his skills at work were not met with enthusiasm from supervisors and, ironically, always resulted in additional tasks outside of his domain interest.

Realizing that his career conversations were futile, Garvis sought a neutral sounding board for his ideas about what to do next. He confided in a colleague at a management-consulting firm. To avoid the embarrassment of having personal conversations leaked, it’s best not to confide in coworkers or peers, said Christian.

Things can still go wrong
In Garvis’ case, he followed most of the “smooth transition” procedures outlined above and he agreed to begin consulting for his former employer following his departure. But the old employer dragged out negotiations about the consulting arrangement for a full month. To move things along, Garvis even dropped his consulting fee from $120 to $50 an hour.

“My good name is more important than my pocket book,” said Garvis.

Still, the company couldn’t agree on terms, leaving Garvis little choice but to look elsewhere for work. He quickly found a new job as an IT manager at a small import/export firm. But as a condition of his employment, the new employer forbade Garvis from doing contractual work for anyone—including the old employer.

With no room for negotiating, Garvis broke the news to his soon-to-be former bosses, just two weeks prior to his departure. The announcement didn’t get good reception.

“It blew up and they were very unhappy,” said Garvis. “It seemed more like I owed them than I’m moving on.”

For all of his good efforts, Garvis’ transition caused bad feelings all around. His experience demonstrates that even the best efforts at transitions and careful planning can result in hard feelings.

“Certain people will take and take and take and, when there’s nothing left to take when the offering stops, they get very upset,” said Garvis. When that happens, there’s little you can do other than move on to your new position and be glad that you have a new opportunity for advancement and growth.