Tips for navigating a staff transition: from the person leaving and the person leading through it

Today is my last day at Fishhook. Even as I type that, it doesn't feel real. For nine years I have had the immense privilege to be part of this team and this mission. I've gotten up each day with enthusiasm for the work. I've partnered with dozens of churches to help them bring creativity and strategy to their communications. I've made lifelong friends who've become family. I love my work and I love my team. And, yet, God has made it clear that my assignment at Fishhook is over.

It happens like that, doesn't it? Sometimes there isn't a single catalyst for a job transition. Sometimes people do leave not because something is wrong, but because it's just their time to go. But even under the best circumstances, staff transitions are painful. They easily unearth what can feel like an endless flood of emotions. They cause anxiety for the team. And they put stress on your organization.

But staff transitions are an unavoidable part of work life (and ministry life). People will come in and out of your organization. Leaders will leave. Things will be uncertain. Through it all, it IS possible to communicate well and navigate these transitions with care and intentionality.

In true Fishhook fashion, we wanted to make sure to share what we've learned as I prepare to leave.

So, here are our top three tips from the perspective of the person leaving (me) and the person leading the team through it (Leah Norton, Managing Partner).

It is good to be vulnerable 

If you're leaving: 

From Aimee: It's easy to want to close off leading up to and/or when you resign. Especially if (like me) you feel a lot of guilt about leaving your team. Don't do it. Don't share the bare minimum just to make it easy on yourself. Honesty and vulnerability matter. And they especially matter during a staff transition.

So, if you're leaving ... be as vulnerable as you possibly can. Show up as your truest self. Be grateful. Be humble. Be honest. Be empathetic. End well. All these things will lead (hopefully) to continued trust and relationships instead of burned bridges. 

If you're leading:
From Leah: Aim to be about people first and what God has for each person. Be open to His work and leading in another person's life - even ahead of your own desires for your team and the work.

In our setting at Fishhook, it's really hard when amazing people feel called away from our team. Yet, in this particular situation, I want Aimee to be obedient to what she believes God is calling her to. I care about that beyond her role at Fishhook even though I love her and will greatly miss her on our team! (And yes, if you're wondering, I did try to keep her!) In the end, I'm striving to be an open-handed leader. I trust Aimee, and I'm so thankful for her. I've told her that. And even more, I trust God's leading for our future at Fishhook. He is working all things out for His good.

It is good to feel all the things

If you're leaving:
From Aimee: If you ask my husband one thing I hate, he would say it's finales. In fact, I almost always avoid watching them on TV. Closing chapters make me feel things I don't like to feel. The end is the worst part. But I LOVE a pilot. I love starting new things, dreaming and wondering what could be. So especially for me, during this transition, it has been imperative that I leave space to live out my finale. To grieve. To close this chapter of my story with as much real-time processing as possible. And it's been important that I leave space for my team to do that as well. When I resigned, I made sure to tell each member of my team that it was okay if they were mad. If they felt betrayed or sad or confused or fill-in-the-blank. If they had a question, I wanted them to ask it. If they wanted to yell at me, I wanted them to do it. If they wanted to make sarcastic comments, I welcomed them. 

So, if you're leaving ... give your team and yourself the space to feel everything. Because grieving and feeling lead to healing.

If you're leading:
From Leah: A healthy leader gives herself space to feel and leads others to do the same. In this situation with Aimee - but also with many situations throughout my work and life - there are often a full range of feelings to feel. For me, the past few weeks have included a lot of prayer, some rest and margin to process my feelings, and intentional conversations with Aimee and each member of our team (individually and as a whole).

I've asked people: how are you doing? And then I've tried to actively listen to hear their sadness, shock, disappointment, questions and thoughts about the future. I know that processing the feelings and giving space for these emotions is an important part of caring for each of us on this journey.

It is good to see possibilities

If you're leaving:
From Aimee: As part of the Fishhook leadership team, one of my key roles has been innovation and casting vision for where we are headed as a team. So it was really important to me that I did that all the way through my time here. I didn't want my team to feel like they had to ideate about what was next without me (unless they wanted to). So I pointed out possibilities any time I thought of one. (This is much easier to do when the trust hasn't been broken between the organization and the employee leaving. I realize not all situations allow for this kind of input.) I knew there was a time to grieve, but also a time to look ahead at what was next for my Fishhook team. Without me there, there would be opportunities for everyone else on the team to reinvent themselves and their roles. And I wanted them to feel that excitement!

So if you're leaving ... look for opportunities to elevate others on your team. Build them up. Help them see what's possible and leave them with as much momentum as you possibly can.

If you're leading:
From Leah: Pray for vision and then don't delay, share it with your team! In the midst of this transition, God is giving us hope and we're seeing possibilities. I see others on our team wanting to grow and step into new leadership roles. And, I'm sure we'll add to the team as well. There is more learning and growing to do together - and it will impact and benefit our churches and ministries! I'm so grateful.
If you're still reading, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for nine years of support and encouragement. Thanks for reading our articles and showing up for our live videos and listening to our podcasts. It has been a true joy and honor. I will cherish these times for the rest of my life. And, spoiler alert, you're going to want to keep following ... because the resources and encouragement coming out of Fishhook are only going to get better!! 

Cheering you on. Always. 

Aimee Cottle