When the Horse Is Dead, Get Off.

A Good Exit requires good timing, and if you're not careful you can mess it up...

After all those sit-coms and reality shows you know what a Good Exit looks like. A woman tells off her cheating husband at the party and then storms out leaving him speechless. A man makes the perfect quip and walks away as his friends shake their heads and laugh at his cleverness. Batman growls a wry warning to the batcuffed thug at his feet and then steps backward off the roof as the police burst out of the stairwell door. You get the idea... a Good Exit is like the cherry on top of the scene. It’s the dismount. If you stick it, you get a perfect "10". If you miss it, you get perfectly embarrassed and all the good stuff you did before it gets diminished. 

A couple years ago, I had a difficult issue to address with our team. We’d made a bad misstep and I called all those involved into my conference room to let them know personally and pointedly that we needed to do better. This particular room had both an outer door to the lobby and an inner door into my private office and as the leaders assembled, it was a tense scene. The room was filled, and a few were even standing. I entered from my office, closed the door behind me, and turned to face them with what I hoped was a determined and maybe even slightly frightening look on my face. I’m not an angry or arrogant leader, but this was a moment to draw a line in the sand and get people's minds right. I made a brief but brilliant and compelling speech calling everyone to step-up and take greater responsibility, and I ended it with a bold: “So now it’s up to you…” I’d planned to leave those words hanging in the air as I turned abruptly and stepped back into my office. I figured this dramatic drop-the-mic moment would be appropriate punctuation to my remarks and leave the team silently confronted with my challenge. It would’ve worked, too, but as I turned to leave, I discovered that the door to my office had locked behind me, and I was forced to slowly and awkwardly claw my way through the entire group to get to the other door. Suffice it to say, the only words hanging in the air when I left the room were: "Excuse me… pardon me… oh, sorry about that… excuse me… my bad…oops..." It was definitely not a Good Exit.

Good Exits are all about knowing when to quit. If you don’t, you can end up frustrating or hurting the very people, projects, and principles you’re trying to champion.

Here are some places it’s important to know when to quit

In conversation: If you talk too little in a conversation, you will fail to express important things and it won't be much of a conversation, but it’s important to know to stop talking too. If you talk too much, the important things you’re trying to convey will get lost in the midst of other unnecessary words and lose their significance. When there is an abundance of words, its hard for any of them to seem very important. It's the linguistic version of the Supply & Demand principle you learned in high school; scarcity increases value. So, pick your words carefully, and when you’ve said what you need to say, stop saying.

In persuasion: When you’re making a pitch or trying to get someone to entertain an unfamiliar or contrary idea, there’s a similar balance to be struck and it’s all about knowing when to end your spiel.  If you stop too soon, you will fail to provide enough appeal to offset the weight of current dispositions and people’s opinions won’t even begin to move.  If you stop too late, you’ll look like you’re trying too hard and people will feel manipulated. They'll dig into their current positions simply to protect themselves from you and your influence. Give ‘em your best pitch and then sit quietly while they mull it over. (Fortunately, crossing your fingers and biting your nails makes very little noise.)

In disagreement: Disagreement gets a bad rap. Sure, it can be frustrating or off-putting, but it can also lead to growth and discovery. It can strengthen people and ideas and give teams another gear. When its missing, relationships feel aloof or inauthentic, but when its constant, they're contentious and devolve into perpetual sparring matches. Manage disagreement well by knowing when it should end. Air your concerns and opposing perspectives compellingly, but when the decision is made and it’s time to come together, put them away.

In leadership: Leaders need to be persistent because giving up too easily will keep them from accomplishing meaningful goals or inspiring real change but refusing to ever give up or walk away can make you oblivious to reality and cause you to sacrifice precious things to your cause unnecessarily. When people are depending on you, there’s a fine line between being a hero or a fool, and knowing when to stop makes the difference. We admire the heroic captain who goes down with the ship to save his passengers, but he deserves his watery grave if he saw the iceberg and simply sailed full steam ahead.

It’s easy to say too much, press too hard, or hold on too long when you care deeply about anything or anyone, and it’s hard to know when to stop. In moments like these, I often hear the voice of my frustrated high school English teacher saying: “Andrew, when the horse is dead, get off.” Apparently, the futility expressed by the adage “Don’t beat a dead horse” wasn’t vivid or descriptive enough in my case. I’m sure he imagined me bent low in the saddle, whiteknuckling the reigns and putting the spurs to the animal long after we were both lying in the dust and it was obvious we weren’t going anywhere. Sometimes I hear his words in my mind soon enough to be savvy and self-controlled— I recognize the time to stop and I make a good exit. Other times, I hear or heed them too late and wind up extricating myself from something I’ve ridden totally into the ground.