When does a CEO know it’s time to go? Well, one way is when the board shows you the door.
But anything less than that, when does a CEO know it’s time to leave even when you’re still on a hot streak?
If you are the CEO, no one other than you can answer this question. But we can give you some clues as to what to consider. It might be time to go if …
- You’re not having fun anymore. Deep down you’ve been feeling this fuzzy sensation: same, same. You find yourself sighing before, or worse yet, during the meetings that used to light your fire. Your mind drifts to golf or getaways or something, anything, much more often than ever. Leadership is a drag and you haven’t admitted it to anyone but your dog.
- You have achieved all the organizational goals you set out to achieve. Life is good. You and your team made it. You may have even won accolades and awards. But now what?
- You cannot imagine what the organization will be like or where it will be in five years. At the beginning of his career, “the question of vision” was very simple, but now he has difficulty seeing around the corner.
- It is more difficult for you to make difficult decisions. To say goodbye to someone? Okay, if you found it legitimate and something the organization needed, you did it. Now pulling the trigger causes you more stress than the departing employee. Close a program, product line, or service? Much more nighttime anxiety than it used to be.
- Respond with “I fixed it five years ago” when the staff comes up with a new idea. After a while, the chief innovator can become the main obstacle to innovation. You’ve already done that and you don’t want to do it again, even when the market gurus say that “changing” is the name of the game in the flat world economy.
- Your skills no longer match the challenges or opportunities of the organization. You came as a builder, you built, and now what do you do? Or you’re a finance wizard who redesigned the organization and made it profitable again, but now the organizational challenge requires a marketer, visionary, or technocrat. The organization needs new blood and you no longer have the correct blood type.
- You feel like doing something new. You have always wanted to go out on your own. Risky? Yes, but oh, go ahead. He has counted his years down to 65 and wants to spend them doing what matters most to him. You have accumulated assets. Now you want to accumulate experiences, or better yet, you want to give back time, talent and treasure. You want to serve.
- You feel that you have allowed yourself or others to enter that dangerous zone where you or they mistake your identity for the organization. Founders are especially susceptible to this pitfall, but any veteran leader can be the victim of reading their own press. The danger to the organization is that the emperor may not have clothes and no one can or will share the bad news. The danger to the leader is a potentially very difficult emotional adjustment when the breakup finally occurs. Less worship, fewer advantages, no power. You forgot that the organization is not about you.
- You and / or the organization are under great political or financial pressure. No one can be a CEO without pressure. Nothing new here. But now the pressure is at a level never seen before. Or the pressure comes from sources they previously were unwaveringly supportive. Or the pressure has more to do with you, your vision or style, than the challenges of the organization. How serious should the pressure be to let the CEO know it’s time to go? It all depends. But when you’re shaving or putting on makeup in the morning, look into your eyes and honestly evaluate the question. The organization can be better off without you.
- You are guilty of some kind of violation of professional ethics and you know it. Too many high-profile corporate and government scandals have occurred in the last decade to ignore the unfortunate possibility of this one. If the shoe fits you, wear it, own it, change it, but don’t keep running away from it. The prison is not a pretty retirement community.
- You are tired, physically, emotionally, mentally, maybe spiritually. It is not a shame to be tired. When he announced his retirement, even Green Bay Packers superstar quarterback Brett Favre said “I’m mentally tired.” Tired does not mean that you are old. It means you’ve given it your all and you need a snack.
- Your spouse, family, or friends want more from you. Many leaders advertise that they are moving on to “spend more time with my family,” but this is often a convenient euphemism for “I’m leaving before I get kicked out.” That said, the considerations of family and friends are real and valuable. It is an old saying but with power: “Nobody chooses an epitaph that says: ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office'”. Organizational leadership comes and goes, friends last a lifetime, families last forever.
Unlike political leaders, CEOs of businesses and nonprofits do not typically work to term limits. When they leave, it is up to their board of directors or themselves. CEOs, by definition, don’t have a lot of people telling them what to do. So the ability to recognize clues that it might be time and honestly consider them with mentors and confidants is a huge plus.
CEOs who stay too long are probably more common than CEOs who leave early. We are creatures of habit. We like our home and the community. We have grown children and grandchildren close by. It is more difficult for us to make a change because the mirror says that we are getting old. It is not sinister. Is human.
However, CEOs who exceed their efficiency or enthusiasm are doing no one a favor, least of all themselves. Our egos and insecurities tend to make us forget that leadership is temporary stewardship. It always comes to an end. The trick is to end it when it’s best for everyone.