Opinion: How to have a good exit by a CEO in transition
Boards and incoming CEOs are well-supplied with comment and advice on how to navigate the passing over of the helm. The aim is to keep the business stable, whilst giving the new CEO space to bring in new ideas.
There’s much less on how the outgoing CEO should manage the transition. I’m moving on from Spread Group in March 2021 after 11 years at the company. This is my third CEO role, so here are my top tips for having a good exit, whether you’re leaving a company, or just moving to a new role in a different department.
In a senior role, where you are leaving the company on good terms, the change may be announced to the organisation from three to six months before you leave. That time is going to be tough on you and your team.
From the day it is decided that you are leaving, your mission changes. You are a leader and it is now your task to lead this change. Your success, your teams’ achievements and results are no longer the issue. Your single mission now is about giving your successor the best opportunity to succeed and take over the reins fast to ensure the success of your company, teams and legacy.
So, how can a CEO, or someone moving internally, have a good exit?
- Plan your departure Prepared for your departure and communicate why it is good for the company. Take the opportunity to have a look at your role with the Board well in advance. Does it meet the company’s needs for the future; are there areas that need reviewing; is it successor-ready? Be honest, even the best CEOs in the world do not do everything right. Sell the fact that new eyes will bring new improvements.
- Keep the team focused Strategy is more important than ever. Keep the team focused on what needs to be done to move the company forward. The future of your organisation is what is important and make sure that continuity is understood.
- Pretend you are not leaving to keep things moving Your significance to the business is likely to dwindle over your notice period. If you are not careful the people in the business may move on from you before you’re actually gone. Whenever you are involved in a project or decision, make sure you push for the result you would want, presuming you would be there.
- Manage the conspiracy theories Meet with your successor and manage the conspiracy theories in-house. Your teams will worry, imagining the terrible outcomes a new person might bring and even build conspiracy theories. Meeting with your successor, whether informally or formally, enables you to calm your team and speak about such fears with your successor.
- Share your knowledge This could be an opportunity to introduce the incoming CEO to your key team members, customers and suppliers. Create a list of things you think they don’t know, or should know, and communicate it. Some things may also be better just passed to your team. Either way don’t lose valuable information.
Whether you’re moving to head up a new organisation, or just moving within the business, industries and companies are small and gossip travels fast. How you leave and what you leave behind is significant for your future career, and the businesses you’ve been involved in. You win by stepping away gracefully and ensuring future success. Nobody will think you did a good job if everything fell apart after you left. What you have built and managed will carry your legacy if it continues to perform.
But above all, your harshest critic is yourself. Will you leave knowing you did your best for your teams, customers and successor? Remember “karma can be a bitch”. As you will probably take over other businesses or teams, ask yourself, have you passed the baton in the way you would like someone to have prepared for you?