How a Departing CEO Should Gracefully Exit Stage Right

Exit Stage Right (2)

By Chris Gandy

The departure of a CEO, for whatever reason, can be disruptive for an organisation.

No matter what the relationship was with the Board and Staff, a departing CEO has a responsibility to remain loyal to the organisation and its Cause and to leave with as much grace and positivity as possible.

Exiting in this way isn’t as easy as it sounds even when the relationship has been a cordial and constructive one and a common trap many departing CEO’s fall into, especially long serving ones, is to anoint a successor.

Tom Adams has researched this matter widely and his findings show that internal successors rarely work out for a number of reasons.

First, because the board has the right and responsibility to hire the new CEO, a successor hand-picked by the former CEO, seldom has the full support of the board.

Second, a good 2IC or deputy doesn’t necessarily have the skills to be a good leader. Also, it takes an exceptional person to step out of the shadow of a former leader and put their distinctive stamp on the culture of an organisation.  For this reason, we often find good 2ICs make good CEOs – but in other organisations.

The third and probably most compelling reason is that organisations invariably benefit from a fresh perspective and the new ideas brought to the table by an external candidate.

Another hole a departing CEO can fall into is to devote their notice period to a farewell tour – saying their goodbyes to staff, stakeholders, funding bodies, community members etc.  While these activities have a place, they shouldn’t take precedence over diligently ensuring the organisation is left in the best place possible for the new CEO.

Rather than waving goodbye, focus should be on capacity building activities that can be accomplished prior to leaving. Also a comprehensive “welcome brief” should be assembled for the incoming person covering such matters as where the organisation sits in terms of the business plan, a list of stakeholders and contacts, an executive calendar of key organisational dates, short and long-term goals, and a status report on any outstanding organisational and people issues.

The final point to made here, and one which is emphasised by those with far more experience with successful leadership transitions than I, is that you can’t have a beginning without an ending. And as Tim Wolfred points out:  “The quality of the new beginning is dependent to a large measure on the quality and completeness of the ending”.

By delivering a quality ending, a departing CEO is contributing to a quality new beginning. And that is something to feel satisfied about!

Chris is the Principal and Managing Director at Cause & Effective – an organisation focused on successfully guiding Boards through leadership transitions.

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

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