A Graceful Exit

Aarathi Krishnan
5 min readOct 24, 2023
Image by @thinkingminds

“You don’t own these jobs. You rent them. They are not yours. Ultimately, no matter how long you are there, you’re just passing through”- Doug Herzog

A curiosity — how to know when your job is done?

A few months ago (August 2023) I posted on LinkedIn. In it, I talked about how much we had achieved collectively in my role at UNDP Asia Pacific in establishing systems for foresight and risk anticipation. Part of that was also quietly ‘announcing’ it was at this specific time, that I was handing my reigns over for the portfolio to evolve and flourish.

Amongst the wonderful well meaning congratulations, there was also an equally strong amount of “Wait, why? That work is going brilliantly — why would you leave now?”

And thats the question isn’t it? Why would you leave now?

In our work — that so many of us hold on to with stiff fingers — we see it as markers of our identity, our worth in life, our standing in society. Most of the advice on leaving jobs is often designed around whether we as individuals have outgrown the organisation, the job etc. RATHER than whether we have achieved what we set out to do, whether the work now needs to evolve, and/or whether we are the right people to grow it beyond where it is currently. Importantly, by staying in these roles indefinitely, do we end up acting as barriers to those coming after us to grow into these roles themselves?

I’ve always seen my work — as a duty, an obligation. An obligation to those that came before me, to do work that adds value to the world, and to do it well. I don’t ‘own’ the work. Rather the work is collectively owned — by those that believe in it, support it, work in it and towards it. And seeing the work as a collective, also allows us to see when it is time to let go, so that it might grow and thrive.

When I started in this role, I set out with a few key principles:

(1) To democratise expertise and not privilege it: Not designing the stereotypical technical expert team that flies in and out of projects and countries, holding the expertise reigns and not actually democratising it.

(2) To design for systems sustainability not job sustainability: Embedding the work as much as possible into the internal systems, structures and cultures of the institution, so that it would be sustainable without individuals having to champion it

(3) To raise the bar of what is possible, rather than continuing the status quo: Experimenting with a variety of different approaches, tools, methods to achieve new quality standards in pursuit of our broader objectives of risk anticipation, and to have that set the standards across our peers.

How could I be sure that I achieved this? Here are some of the things I took into consideration:

  • Did I feel that that the overall objectives of developing anticipatory systems were achieved? Did I have evidence to support this?
  • Were the fruits of our work being picked up on by different teams, were they running with this work themselves?
  • Did we have enough use cases, examples, different entry points to demonstrate the diversity in how we build anticipatory capabilities and long term thinking?
  • Did we publish enough knowledge products and produce enough guidelines/frameworks so that others had resources to draw on?
  • Was the work integrated into internal systems, and processes enough so that it could be sustainable without me spearheading it?
  • Was the language and knowledge of risk anticipation widely used, did constituents and stakeholders adopt it in their own lexicon?
  • Were other business units and organisations learning from, adapting and building on the baselines we had designed?
  • Was there a strong network and focal points that could carry out the work, without having to rely on a small team of perceived technical experts?
  • Did the portfolio achieve its implementation status and was now running relatively smoothly? Did this indicate that it was now time for the portfolio to evolve beyond whether it is now?
  • Was I in fact the right person to evolve it, or was I stopping others from being able to grow it themselves?

I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we had achieved these indicators. Not just based on my gut but by numerous forms of evidence. The work was moving into ‘business as usual’ which was a clear indicator that the systems I had designed were running relatively smoothly. Importantly, neither I nor my team, was being called upon to ‘solve’ every issue — rather the network was problem solving by itself, calling on each other. Which is exactly where it should be.

As always — this is not the work of one individual. I have been honoured to be able to work with some amazing people — some of whom are also now looking to expand their horizons and I cannot recommend them enough! Sophia Robele Boukje Kistemaker Samantha Happ Beth Allen

I look back on the last three years with pride. Knowing we’d set to achieve what we had, and knowing that it was time to leave so that the work can thrive in its next stage. I recognise the privilege it takes to be able to leave jobs and it wasn’t taken lightly. But it was the absolute right thing to do.

More than anything, I strongly believe that we’re shepherds for our work. For the things we build. For the worlds we want to create.

So whats next? I have been luxuriating in a short sabbatical, taking time to rejuvenate, sleep, connect with what matters. And now? Building and scaling the work on global risk and crisis anticipation across organisations — so that together we can be better prepared for our futures. Reach out if you want to explore together, or feel I can be of service.

As Audrey Lorde has said (of course I was going to quote Audrey Lorde):

“I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my noseholes — everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!”
Audre Lorde

In solidarity and in community,

www.aarathikrishnan.com

aarathi@aarathikrishnan.com

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Aarathi Krishnan

Humanitarian Futures and Strategic Foresight Advisor. Interested in cultural, indigenous, feminist & decolonising futures. All views my own