One of the most disruptive things that can happen to a strong team is to lose its leader. Sometimes that choice is voluntary. Sometimes it isn't. Either way, it's an inevitability, and you need to handle this change just as compassionately and humanely as everything else you do for your team. Your folks are going to be worried – about what this means for the team, why you're leaving, and what this means for them specifically. It's critical that you go about handling it in a way that's respectful and helpful to both the team and the company.
Here's a few things to do:
Ask for time. You want time to help transition your team, and to give them the ability to ask questions about why you're no longer leading them. Sometimes this might not be possible. But you should always ask. Your team deserves to hear it directly from you, to have the ability to ask you why, and – most importantly – to say goodbye, in person. Push for this, if you have to. It's important.
Take time to talk to your folks. Do this as a group initially, and follow up individually afterwards. It's critical that you talk to your team about your departure before letting the rest of the organization know. These are your folks. They deserve some time to process the news before everyone else knows.
Your team needs to learn about this all at the same time, but they're going to need time to process and ask questions they may not be comfortable asking in front of other folks. And you need time to talk to each of your folks, face to face, and allow for both of you to get some closure on the boss/report relationship.
Be appreciative. You succeeded up until this point only because your folks did. Take some time to thank each one personally, with specific reasons why you are grateful and what you take away from your time with them.
Answer questions. Answer your folks' questions as openly and honestly as you can. You may have some constraints put on you here. That's OK. Be open about that when it's the case.
...and don't lie. Be as open as you can be about your reasons for going. If you are leaving for a new role, talk about it. If you have been asked to resign, simply say that your last day is coming up, and you're leaving the organization. Either way, keep the focus of conversation on the team, and its strength.
Then, ask questions. What worked well in the relationship? What advice would they give your next set of folks, and what advice do they have for you?
Transition your folks to a new leader. Sometimes you have a choice in who this is, sometimes you don't. Either way, give your folks the tools and knowledge they need to succeed with their new leader. Tell them whatever you know from your time working with this person that will give them a head start in building a strong working relationship.
Make sure you also take the time to put together a transition document for the person taking on your folks that talks about their current professional growth, alongside any personal notes you feel might be helpful. Give both sides a head start on building a relationship. BUT, respect your folks' privacy in this. Don't pass on personal details without specifically discussing it with your folks first.
Take time for yourself, quietly, to grieve. You've invested a lot of time and emotional energy in this group of people. Helping this team has been a challenging, interesting, and rewarding experience for you, and you're about to leave it for an unknown. Even if you're leaving for a spectacular new opportunity, this process is hard on you, too. Take time to acknowledge that you are going to miss spending every day with your folks.
Provide guidance. Guess what? You're still their manager. Until you hand in your badge and laptop, they're still your team. If you've built a strong relationship, your folks will be understandably affected by the news you're leaving.
So help guide your folks through this before you go. Remind them that they are strong together, clever, and above all good at their work. Remind them that your team was successful because of them, not you, and that this will continue long after you're gone.
They'll be fine.
So, for that matter, will you.