When it’s time to go – guidance for long-time leaders

My New Year’s resolution in 2005 was to step-down from my job as president of our region’s United Way. After 11 years in what I still describe as “the best real job I’ve ever had,” it definitely wasn’t an easy decision. I had too much regard for the organization, the people, and my community to bring anything less than 100% to the job each day, but I was beginning to feel as if that level of commitment was slipping away. So I gave my board and myself six months to manage a transition, and I began a job search that eventually led me to the consulting work I do today.

After many years of gratifying work with an organization you love, how do you know when it is time to move on, and how do you set the stage for a successful leadership transition?

Grappling with these questions is likely to be more difficult the longer you have been in your leadership role and exponentially more difficult if you are the founder. Your sense of “ownership” is probably especially acute, as might be the perception that the organization can’t survive without you.

In my experience, most strong leaders can identify the necessity of letting go—either for their own good or for the good of the organization. Unfortunately, however, many are plagued by a feeling that they “just can’t leave now,” not because they aren’t ready or prepared, but because they don’t believe their organization is ready. There is one more major initiative, a key hire to make, board leadership to recruit, a funding problem to be solved, a new piece of legislation that will impact programming, or one more annual or capital campaign that needs to be completed. Standing in the way is always one more thing to be done or one more problem to be resolved.

If you find yourself in this “one more” trap, consider putting your organization in shape to manage the leadership transition successfully by doing the following:

Board building – If you are a long-time leader at your organization, you may well have found that the board has become overly reliant upon you and, perhaps, less engaged than it should be. Managing a leadership transition, attracting the next leader, and building a new relationship will require the board to lead—really lead—in a way that it may not have done for a while. Now may be the time for the board to conduct a formal board self-assessment, form or activate a governance committee, and identify steps it needs to take to build its capacity.

Internal capacity – Choosing your successor is not your job, but you can help to position your staff team to support the transition and fare well with a new leader. What kinds of experience or responsibilities can you share with others to help them grow? Can you hand-off something or bring someone into a piece of your work that will deepen their knowledge and broaden their skill-set? What kind of training would help position them for success? Or is now the time to offer one or more members of your team some executive coaching? Savvy leaders will look at how they can position their team and their organization for success by ensuring that key employees get essential training and growth opportunities.

Relationship management – Success in fundraising and partnerships depends upon the relationships that have been built over time. You owe it to your organization to ensure that key donor and partnership relationships are organizational relationships that aren’t entirely dependent upon you. Begin now to bring others into the relationships that may have been exclusive and take steps to “hand-off.” This thoughtful cultivation may be among the most important services you can provide to your organization.

Administrative details – Updating the personnel manual, conducting a salary survey, revising the bylaws, purchasing that new software—the “to do” list of projects that keep getting pushed to the backburner may feel like a dark cloud over your head. What are the outstanding items that would make your successor’s job substantially easier if accomplished prior to the transition? What really needs to get done while you’re in the driver’s seat? There will always be more good ideas than hours in the day, but choose what is truly important and get it done.

Have the conversation – While I gave my board a six-month notice, my experience working with multiple boards and their leaders has convinced me that 12 months is pretty close to ideal for doing the capacity-building work and transition management required. Start the clock ticking on your departure by having a confidential conversation with your board chair. Together you can further refine a timeline, set expectations, and agree upon an initial communication strategy that will set the stage for a well-managed transition.

Board counsel – While board members may have counted on you for practically everything to this point, you and they should not expect that you will also serve as their counsel throughout the transition. They may be ready to step-up and do this work on their own, but they could benefit from some professional guidance for one or more aspects of the transition. Giving them permission (and identifying funds that may be available) to seek counsel for the transition, to support their board-building efforts, or to hire an executive search firm may be just what they need.

The hardest part of letting go may be setting a departure date and having the conversation with your board leadership. If you’ve come to the conclusion that it is time to start the transition, don’t go looking for one more reason that you can’t leave. Choose a date, give yourself 12 months, and play a leadership role in readying your organization. You owe it to yourself, your organization and those you serve.

This blog post was authored by Jeff Wahlstrom. For more advice about leadership transitions, visit the Starboard website: www.starboardleadership.com or click here to arrange a conversation with a member of our consulting team.