Knowing when and how to move on

Over the course of this season, quitting became a constant topic. One of my team members quit to take on a new role closer to home. A new friend talked to me about quitting her job to spend more time enjoying her family and less time worrying about making it all fit in her schedule. A partner quit because he had done what he came to do and was ready to move on to something else. With the perspective I’ve gained through the Quitter conversations in season 5, I was able to view these Quits within MY sphere as something rich and endlessly fascinating. Here were three people who were shifting gears into a new chapter of their careers and I was watching this process unfold in real-time. 

When I started out with this season, I referred to the Infinite Game by Simon Sinek. As a reminder: In the Infinite Game, players stop playing for two reasons: 

  1. They lack the external resources to keep playing, such as the remuneration or the job to build an ecosystem, or
  2. Their internal resources - such as will and motivation - are depleted causing them to step out.

With each conversation in this season, I was trying to sort my guest into one of these two boxes only to be reminded that people can’t be sorted into boxes. Quitting a purpose-driven role is much more complex than that.

Here’s what I found instead:

Ecosystem builders typically quit because they run out of both internal AND external resources.

I talked to six guests about their very unique and personal journeys of building ecosystems and leaving their roles. 

Yes, sometimes burnout was their main reason to step back. But more often than not it was a combination of events and experiences that fueled each other and - as a result - led to their quitting. 

Joe Maruschak stepped back because he was lacking support from his community. His city was more on board with spending 27 million dollars on an exit ramp than with funding their startup ecosystem. Joe had self-funded his work for three years and a lack of commitment from the powers that be is a slap in the face. Let me tell you from experience. So Joe stepped back and I can’t blame him.

Julia Firestone was and remains a deeply committed changemaker in the social impact world. But being asked to work for less by doing more, without acknowledging and respecting her role in the organization and her contributions to its success made her quit. 

Annie Wood was starting to figure out what was next for her when her then-boss decided it for her which brought a lot of heartache and pain. I was reminded how important it is that when we quit, WE need to be in charge of the terms and timelines of the process. Luckily, Annie is an exceptional human being who took the time to grief what could have been and diligently worked through this experience back to herself. I admire how Annie took charge of her career and continues to live and work in the same community. To me, Annie is a phenomenal example of what happens when we make enough space to listen to what our hearts and minds and bodies try to tell us.

Lucas Lindsey was faced with both the realization that he was working incredibly hard, and that his wife needed a new environment to succeed in the academic job market. Here, again, both - the internal and external drivers - drove the decision to step back from ecosystem building. When I first reached out to Lucas to ask him why he wasn’t ecosystem building anymore, I assumed he’d just had enough. Our conversation, however, lifted the hood and revealed everything else that was going on. His dad’s diagnosis, his wife’s career change and Lucas’ burning the candle on both ends at Domi Station in Florida. 

In quitting, there’s so much more than meets the eye.

Ecosystem builders find new ways to build an ecosystem

While not building an entrepreneurial ecosystem anymore, Annie is putting her community building and deep empathy to work at the Minnesota State University Moorhead to design student experiences that make students want to stay and excel at the school. Besides, Annie never sits still long enough. She’s making her community better in her free time by organizing faux arts shows and other events in the community.

Lucas Lindsey doesn’t spend his time helping entrepreneurs refine their pitches or raising funds for acceleration programs anymore. Now a father of two, he is invested in developing real estate projects that add to the quality of life in his community in Phoenix, AZ, indirectly paving the way for the Phoenix ecosystem to attract entrepreneurial minds and talent through placemaking.

Julia Firestone had enough of unqualified nonprofit leadership and struck out on her own instead. Through her coaching practice she is now building her own community of purpose-driven mid-career professionals who are moving the needle in the social impact space.

When Naomi Ryland and her cofounders started The Changer in Berlin over a decade ago, they were put through the ringer of the conventional unicorn hype that is the high-growth startup scene. After years of trying to follow a playbook that wasn’t written for them, Naomi decided to write her own and I highly recommend you get yourself a copy of Starting a Revolution. Does that mean Naomi wants nothing to do with the social enterprise ecosystem anymore? Au contraire! She is simply finding new ways to make a difference while upholding her boundaries as a parent, partner and advocate.

Quitting can be temporary.

Over the last decade, Larkin Garbee kickstarted dozens of initiatives in the Richmond, Virginia, startup ecosystem, and she stepped back during the pandemic. After several years in the national spotlight and working hard to move the entire field of ecosystem building forward, she took a hiatus to work hyper locally and take charge of her health. But when I recently caught up with her, I was not a bit surprised that she was back at it - working with founders, mentoring entrepreneurs and attending or hosting events that benefit the local ecosystem. 

Remember Todd Nuckols who I spoke to in season 4? In brief, Larkin and Todd co-founded Lighthouse Labs, ran it for several years and when Todd left Richmond several years ago, his role as an ecosystem builder ended. Or did it? When I last spoke to him, he was working behind the scenes to support the evolution of a new type of nation-wide ecosystem for faith-based entrepreneurial support and I can’t wait to bring him back on the show to hear what’s happening.

In producing this season, I hoped I would find the secret formula to keeping ecosystem builders in the game of ecosystem building for longer. And if not the secret formula, then at least the secret. Any secret really. Anything to help prevent the exodus of passionate changemakers. And what I uncovered was sobering. 

There is no one thing that would have prevented any of these guests from quitting. It was a complex decision of compounding events and experiences that led them to stepping away from the work. Sometimes for good, sometimes temporarily. For some, it remains to be seen.

HOW you leave

Another insight I gleaned from this season is the importance of HOW you exit. 

Obviously, you don’t always have a choice. If you, like in Annie’s case, get two weeks to clean out your desk and hand everything over, there’s little you can do. But even in that situation, Annie made a conscious choice of HOW she wanted to set her team up for success after her departure. And more importantly, she defined for herself how she wanted to leave:

I had three and a half weeks to figure out like, okay, commit to ending things. I asked myself, "What does it ending well mean for me?"

For me, it meant really looking at how to hand off any projects that I cared about. How to I make sure that there's continuity. And how to I care for my teammates to some degree. I didn't wanna leave them in a lurch or feel like I dropped all this stuff on them. She dumped a bunch of stuff on us, and so it.

At the end of the day this is about making sure that the community is cared for.

Another approach came from Naomi Ryland. She had every reason to just throw in the towel and declare that she’d had enough but no. Naomi decided to work within the system to create a new type of organization that was self-organized, in which employees took responsibilities according to their competencies, and she eventually worked herself out of her role by transferring much of that power of the founder over to the team that was doing the day-to-day work.

I had this feeling that if I didn't go through this tricky situation where the worst thing that can happen is still not the very worst thing, then maybe things aren't going to change.

I figured that maybe people like me are the ones who have to take these risks and go through this dark tunnel, because we're the ones who can afford to lose. That was a real kind of guiding light for me during this time.

What we have established so far: Quitting is part of life. Quitting is part of our careers, ESPECIALLY in the 21st century during which our career paths look more like a patchwork quilt as we  learned from April Rinne in season 2. Ending one thing and starting another is just how we move forward as practitioners.

Somehow, this idea does clash with the notion that building and nurturing entrepreneurial ecosystems is the work of a lifetime. As we uncovered in season 2, complex, adaptive systems can take a long time to shift and change. So for us to be effective change makers, we need to be in it for the long run. And what I realized here is that even if you quit your job with an organization, you might still be an ecosystem builder. You might just find a different outlet to do the work. At the end of the day, as long as you’re passionate about transforming your community into one that is prosperous and vibrant, it doesn’t matter whether you work at a university or as a developer or self-employed or a community builder who has “ecosystem building” in their title. 

And that, my friends, is the beauty of ecosystem building and the Infinite Game metaphor: As long as you’re working towards a better tomorrow where you live, work and play, your job title doesn’t matter. Keep playing for as long as you feel called to do so. You may step out of the Game of Ecosystem Building for some time, and you may re-enter at any time without having to ask permission or announce your return. Simply roll up your sleeves, listen to what your community needs and get to work. You can trust that this game will take care of the rest.

Key Resources Season 5

Browse Episodes

Ecosystems For Change: Logbook #6

Welcome to my 6th logbook where I share what’s happening behind and beyond the scenes. And I’m introducing a segment, the Unsung Heroes of Ecosystem Building.

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S05E08: What We Learned: Knowing When and How to Move On as an Ecosystem Builder

Over the course of this season, I found that quitting a purpose-driven role is much more complex than a simple lack of internal or external resources as in The Infinite Game.

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S05E07: Unlearning Systems, Sharing Power, and Stepping back from Your Startup with Naomi Ryland

Naomi Ryland talks about how to turn your organization from a hierarchical to a self-organized one, and how to shift and share power as a person with privilege.

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S05E06: The Art of Quitting: Gracefully Navigating the Responsibility of Change with Lucas Lindsey

Lucas Lindsey talks about planning for succession and the importance of the built environment for entrepreneurial ecosystem building.

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