Leaving out the welcome back mat

"He who rejects change is the architect of decay." Harold Wilson

Picture yourself quitting your job. You walk into the boss's office and announce that you're leaving. I can tell you what your boss will say: "I'm sorry to hear it." This is a line from the Script of Life, one of those obligatory remarks predetermined by the societal brain.

What you'll probably never know is what the boss is really thinking. However, picturing a young man telling his crusty old supervisor that he's leaving, here are a few possibilities of what's in the boss's head:

1. Thank heavens I procrastinated on firing him.

2. Should I watch him pack his stuff or get security to do it?

3. Who can I dump his work on?

4. Maybe I shouldn't have made that crack to him about how I could get faster work out of a narcoleptic on Nyquil. Or, most likely of all,

5. How could he do this to me?

Notice in these boss thoughts the predominance of the first-person rationale, the calculation of the impact on the boss himself. That's because when the majority of managers say "team," they mean "my team," which means "me with helpers."

On the other hand, the best leaders have different thoughts because they have more options. Take, for instance, Walter Hunt. He's the vice chairman of Gensler, the big architectural firm, with 2,800 employees around the world. If it's Hunt's team you're leaving, he's going to point to the wall . . . not the door, the wall. On that wall is a framed boomerang with his name on it. And then he will tell you his story: He was working for Gensler back in the '70s when he decided that industrial design was his calling, and he went to a small firm to specialize in it. He remained in touch with Art Gensler, his old boss, who routinely invited him to come back.

"Art kept saying, 'Come back,' and finally I said, ' OK.' He said, 'Get down here right away.' And I was off to help run the company's Denver office."

That's Hunt's boomerang story, retold ever since. And he's not the only one at the firm. Gensler now has a Boomerang Program, and anyone who leaves and returns is given a wooden boomerang inscribed with the person's name and the dates going and returning. The result is that nearly 200 people currently working at Gensler are boomerangs.

This is brave stuff, the sort of openness that typical bosses scoff at. After all, the ordinary manager says, "If you make it easy to return, you make it easy to leave." And that's probably true . . . for ordinary bosses and firms. If your company is good enough and big enough (in terms of corporate size and mental expansiveness), then you like your odds.

Take Hunt, for instance. He didn't leave Gensler because he knew he could come back; he left because he was pursuing his dream, what he thought at the time was his destiny. He didn't leave because there wasn't risk; he left to chase after risk, to take a shot at something different.

Then, after the ardor for change had cooled, and Hunt discovered that working for a smaller architectural firm meant working with smaller clients who lacked the knowledge or budgets to do design as he thought it should be done, he was ready to go back to Gensler . . . back home. They were happy to welcome him, and why not? He came back with new experiences and new appreciation. He returned not just pretrained for Gensler, but retrained for new endeavors.

Think of what it costs corporations to send a promising employee off to, say, Stanford University for a semester of executive training. You pay the employee, the travel, and the university. Gensler gets something similar, but more practical, for free. Sure, they give up control, but part of leadership at the highest level is realizing how much you can't control.

So here's what Walter Hunt will say if you're a top performer who stops in to say goodbye: "Sit down and tell me about the opportunity." Then he'll say, "Do well, but it if doesn't work, call." Meanwhile, what is he really thinking? "I'm thinking that I hope they'll come back, re-energized and refocused, and with a new perspective on what they can contribute. And if they don't come back, I want them to say, 'Working at Gensler was a great experience.' "

How could you not want to come back to that?

Dale Dauten is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at dale@dauten.com.