There can be many thoughts tugging at the heart of a leader who is considering the right time to leave. Some are positive, arising out of a concern for the ongoing health of the organization and wanting to ensure that the transition is as smooth as possible. Some people think the organization can’t get along without them. I tend to think of this attitude as a kind of hubris—meaning exaggerated pride or self-confidence, according to Merriam-Webster’s definition—that can cloud our thinking and keep us from seeing situations realistically.
And some leaders may feel it’s time to leave but find it hard to step away before finishing that one more big project or launching that one last great idea (which of course leads to the next idea…and then the next…
One key to preparing a healthy exit strategy involves creating while you’re there an environment that will be able to continue to flourish without you. As part of your preparation for the company, you either line up a successor or have a process in place that you feel will bring into the organization a competent leader. You may not identify that person yourself, but contributing to the process can go a long way toward helping the organization transition smoothly. In some organizations I’ve been involved with, leaders are asked at their annual review, “Who in the organization can take your place?” This question helps the reviewer learn who else in the organization the leader thinks is good, and it also says something about the way in which that leader thinks about people.
Ultimately when we are thinking about when to leave an organization, we need to do some sorting to help clarify the choice. Determining which thoughts are the voice of the ego, and which ones are truly in the best interest of the organization will help bring some light to the decision. When I left my role as president of Lilly Endowment in 1973 to become president of PSI Energy (which became Cinergy and sold to Duke Energy in 2006), some confidants questioned my judgment—why would I want to leave this organization that seemed to be in the center of everything? But I knew there were a number of talented younger leaders who could contribute and lead the organization.
Most recently, I made the decision to step down as chairman of Lumina Foundation for Education. I was an advocate of limited terms for board members, and I pushed the board to put that policy in place. Although I loved my work there and really didn’t want to relinquish my role at that point, I realized that after advocating for term limits, I needed to walk the talk and step down myself. I have continued to serve on the board and will continue to do so until my current term is completed early next year.
Clarifying your choices when you’re feeling it might be time to move on and helping to put a solid exit strategy in place are two ways to ensure the transition unfolds as evenly as possible. The truth is, if it’s time for you to go and instead of facing it, you’re digging in your heels, life might help you by presenting an exit strategy you might not have chosen for yourself I’ve witnessed a number of people who missed the opportunity to quit in an honorable way and were subsequently embarrassed. A much better choice is to look clearly at the situation at hand and make the call you want to make--if possible, well in advance of the day you actually say goodbye.