Transition Management Consulting, Inc.

Leaving Well – How to Leave Your Job and Protect Your Legacy

by Robert T. Van Hook, CAE | Nov 01, 2003
You may be remembered as much for how you leave an association as for how you lead it. Here are considerations to help you protect the association you have worked so hard to build, while still gracefully disconnecting yourself for your next exciting venture.
2003 Winner Executive Update's Feature Writing Contest

In discussing his departure last year as founder and president of the TransAfrica Forum, Randall Robinson said there are two things a leader can give to an organization: to serve an organization with passion and strength and to know when it is time to leave.

Everyone knows the value of first impressions, but your last impression may be the most important of your career. Whether it is a celebrated planned retirement or an inglorious firing, sooner or later, every association executive will be the central player in an executive transition. "Executive transitions" are defined as "the process that occurs between a departing executive's announcement of his or her departure and the three to six months after a new executive is on board. Such transitions can be either positive (with good outcomes for all parties) or negative (with dysfunctions and crises). How you deal with your departure becomes an important part of your leadership legacy.

A successful executive transition is one that results in the following:

  • A clean break with the organization that brings closure and a sense of the value of the executive's tenure; 
  • Effective executive leadership during the interim that maintains or enhances the organization's momentum and preserves the outgoing executive's credibility; 
  • The employment of a new executive who will succeed because his or her skills, values, and experience align with the association's culture and strategic direction; 
  • A board and staff that have dealt with the departure of the outgoing executive and are ready for and supportive of the new leader; 
  • A board with a clear sense of purpose and expectations for the new executive, as well as a system to assess performance and manage the relationship.

Planning the Swan Song
Every executive has a fantasy of announcing plans to depart and then leaving to the final vision of a standing ovation from the staff, board, and membership. But like most fantasies, the reality is often less fulfilling than the dream. Leaving well is less about dreaming than about paying careful attention to the details and processes that surround your departure.

Most of us want to tie up all the loose ends before we leave. But even under the best of circumstances, you are not going to complete all the tasks that need to be done, because the association is always moving, and the to-do lists grow ever longer. Dave Simmons, director of the White Pine Library Cooperative in Saginaw, Michigan, suggests that the goal of outgoing executives should be to "leave a cleaner campsite than when you got there." In other words, clearly identify all the things that need to be done and figure out which ones you can and cannot accomplish before you leave. One of the best gifts you can give your replacement is detailed information about critical tasks and deadlines.

It is a good idea to gather and organize all types of information about your association for your replacement or interim executive. Think about what information you would want handy as you enter a new executive position. When Barbara Byrd Keenan, CAE, left as executive director for the Community Associations Institute, she provided her successor with the audits, financial statements, membership reports, board minutes, and budgets for the past 10 years — everything she hopes to have in her next position. While you may not be as thorough, you should pull together information that will help the new executive quickly get down to business.

Games People Play
The announcement of a CEO's departure is a major event for the whole organization, since the association is a system. One characteristic of a system is that a change in one part affects other parts. As soon as the CEO announces a departure, relationships between the board and CEO — as well as relationships among staff — begin to shift.

Sometimes these changes get out of hand; board and staff relationships become unbalanced and drift into dysfunction. For example, one senior staff executive observed that her association's staff began "acting out" once the CEO departed. Staff came in late or not at all. They flaunted simple policies, such as not completing leave request forms; started blaming and accusing each other; and undertook no new initiatives. "It was business as usual but at the lowest level of performance," says the executive.

The way to deal with these problems is to avoid lingering periods of executive uncertainty, to ensure effective management of the association in the interim, and to recognize and address the human dynamics of change head-on.

Some of the messiest executive transitions occur within organizations run by some of the best, most powerful executive leaders. Powerful leaders take risks and stir up a lot of change in their associations, so in time, they make both fans and enemies. When a CEO says he or she is leaving, it creates a power vacuum. Frequently, well-meaning staff or volunteers are drawn into the vacuum, and sometimes they make a mess of it. A board chair may decide this is a good time to conduct a staff layoff or make other radical operational changes that would normally be outside the board's purview. Senior staff members may use this opportunity to position themselves in a favorable light with the board.

The organization of a lame-duck CEO is not the same organization anymore, because established relationships and ways of doing business are so radically changed. In one association, while the exiting executive was serving out his three-month notice, his deputy began going directly to the elected leadership with management issues in a rather obvious attempt to position himself well during the transition. When the behavior continued, the CEO fired the deputy, creating even more disruption. In another association, staff retreated into their departmental silos and quit working together as a team as a way of shoring up their power or protecting themselves in anticipation of a new executive's arrival.

These examples may seem extreme, but they are not uncommon. Unless the association can afford months of less-than-peak performance, departing executives and boards are wise to address the human aspects of the executive transition directly and sensitively.

Sticking Around
There is no easy answer to the question of how long an outgoing executive should stay in the organization after announcing his or her departure. It depends on the terms of the separation, the executive's contract (if one was signed), and the size, strength, and financial position of the association. Most CEOs say later that they stayed too long after deciding to leave. Some execs stay as long as a year or more, but this can be an unsatisfying time for everyone concerned. It's like a prolonged stay on the end of a diving board — finally, everyone says, "Jump already!" The consensus among executives to whom I have talked is that three months is the maximum an outgoing CEO should remain on the job, and that 30 days may be optimal.

Most executives are inclined to stick around to finish projects and to minimize the length of time between their departure and the new executive's arrival. Unfortunately, lame-duck executives often are not very effective, and they cannot, in a brief time, make up for strategic or operational shortcomings. Bringing in an outside interim CEO to help the association manage the transition can give the departing executive and the board confidence that the association will have competent management in the interim and shorten the length of time needed for the executive to remain on board. Not hanging on too long has the additional benefit of giving the outgoing executive some renewal time between assignments.

One of the worst effects of long, unmanaged executive transition is that staff naturally feels uneasy about what is going to happen when the new executive arrives. In long transitions, this anxiety builds, and staff members begin to make up stories about what might happen with a new leader. They also may use an unmanaged transition time to float their resumes around the association community. One association recently lost more than 10 percent of their staff under a lame-duck CEO. On the other hand, associations with crisp, well-managed transitions seem to have fewer staff turnovers between executives.

Once the new executive or interim executive is chosen, the departing executive should get out of the way. The outgoing executive should not remain in a position of authority for more than 24 hours after the new executive is onboard. When I took over as interim executive director for the Society of Interventional Radiology (SIR), outgoing Executive Director Paul Pomerantz, CAE, had a week remaining before his departure. Pomerantz moved out of his office and announced to the board and staff that he was no longer making decisions for the society. And at a staff meeting, we staged a somewhat humorous but effective ceremony of passing the torch of leadership, which helped the staff bring Pomerantz's tenure to a psychological close and opened their minds to new possibilities. Because the transfer of power was unambiguous, staff could begin to think positively about the transition and the potential that a new executive might hold. Pomerantz, too, felt good knowing that the legacy he had created at SIR would be well-maintained after he left.

Hit-by-a-Bus Succession Planning
The best way to deal with an executive transition is to anticipate it. A succession plan is like an insurance policy for the organization, insuring against both the planned departure of the CEO and the leader's unexpected exit due to a catastrophic illness or other unforeseen circumstances.

In the short run, a succession plan should lay out a plan for dealing with the executive transition.

Sharon J. Swan, CAE, executive director of the American Society for Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, says she and her board developed an emergency plan that included a scenario for the executive being "hit by a bus." In the emergency plan Swan lays out all the issues the board would need to consider if she were suddenly struck down. Included is a list of professional interim executives who might be engaged in an emergency, as well as executive recruiters who might be consulted when a replacement search must begin.

Michael Kulczycki, CAE, who is now with the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, helped his former association's board develop a succession plan to ease his departure after six years with the association. The plan called for his relatively quick departure and the engagement of an interim CEO. Kulczycki details the following benefits of a planned transition:

  • The volunteer leadership looks good to the membership for having had the "foresight" for such a plan, even if management initiated it.
  • A plan reduces stress and panic by volunteer leadership faced with both short-term worries about day-to-day operations and longer-term replacement issues.
  • The CEO's personal stress and ownership of issues accompanying an exit are reduced.
  • The CEO can focus his or her energy on implementing the succession plan versus trying to complete projects.
  • A plan enables the CEO to make a clean break from the association and allows an interim or even the replacement to do some necessary or suggested cleanup.

In the long run, an association can use succession planning to strategically position the association for success before an expected retirement by a CEO. A good succession plan assesses stakeholders' long-range goals and aspirations, and then determines the competencies needed to help create that future. Good succession planning must be forward-looking, identifying requirements for future leaders rather than just identifying a slate of candidates for the next six to 12 months of operations.

In larger organizations, succession planning can help groom internal candidates for the job, so they can step into the new position with the skills they need to be successful. According to Robert Bolan, CAE, "By far, the best action any association CEO can take is to prepare a staff member to be the successor, just as is done routinely in the for-profit business world." Bolan, who has served as an interim executive for several associations, points out that it would be unthinkable for a small to mid-sized family business owner to leave and expect family or business associates to search for a replacement.

Letting Go
The best advice for an executive leaving an association is to "let go." Even though the staff and board said all those nice things about you at your going away party, you are "history," and your continued presence is likely to be as welcome as a ghost. The association is going to have to learn to live without you as its leader, so the sooner you get out of the way, the sooner they can get on with the process of working with a new leader. Recently departed executives should try to avoid communicating with staff or the board for six months or more to give the new executive time to put his or her stamp on the association. Under no circumstances should an outgoing executive speak with the board about the new executive's performance, except perhaps to lavishly praise the new executive.

Outgoing executives should convey only positive feelings about past employers and their former association's future. Saying bad things reflects poorly on you, because it is almost impossible to make your complaints sound like anything other than sour grapes. To help you remember your lines, compose a 30-second "elevator speech" to tell people in a positive way why you are making the move and to convey your excitement about the future. This is true even if you get fired or are asked to leave the association.

Whether leaving under good circumstances or bad, get clear about how you are going to convey it to the world in a way that will place you and the association in a positive light. Remember, you create the perception of the conditions of your departure with your story, and perception is reality. Remember, too, that you are in great company. As a friend of mine notes, "You haven't arrived as a CEO until you've been fired."

One of the seductions of leadership is that we think we're indispensable or at least that the association may stumble without us. Truth is, they do just fine. Things will be different, but in most cases, the organization will survive or even thrive without you. While you are in the system, be fully and passionately present. When you can't be fully present, get out gracefully, so you will be remembered well. As playwright Tom Stoppard points out, "Every exit is an entry somewhere else."