Most chief executives do not come to the role rapidly. They work their way to the job through a series of roles with increasing responsibility, expanding their networks, knowledge and influence. They aren’t usually in a hurry to move out of the role and too much change at the top isn’t good in any case.
However, some seem to stay at the party too long. They don’t prepare an internal successor or form relationships with a possible external successor. In the most challenging cases, they are adversarial with the board on the topic and actively, though perhaps unconsciously, undermine possible successors.
Any CEO needs to understand that it isn’t just his or her legacy they are playing with.
A long, contentious succession process does tarnish the reputation of a CEO who is hanging on. Michael Eisner, is a memorable example. His reluctance, even defiance, tarnished Disney and drew criticism of himself and the board. How does that happen?
- The struggles in the boardroom have a way of leaking out, not necessarily because a director is inappropriately sharing what is going on. Boards have observers both internal and external. A public company knows this all too well.
- A CEO, who is in conflict with his or her board, is distracted. Click To Tweet An anxious and distracted CEO can’t hide it forever.
- Long before anyone else may notice, the uncertainty and fear of having your departure determined by someone other than you, will influence your decisions.
- Worrying about an impending event, of unknown timing, leads to a distorted view of information, people, and risks.
- Eventually, the focus goes to the board. What are they doing or not doing? How can they let this happen?
Last year, the well-liked CEO of The Home Depot, Frank Blake, retired and passed the baton to Craig Menear. It was orderly, smooth and Blake handled it with the grace the process and the company, deserve.
Whether you are on a board or not, a CEO or not, the lesson applies. Staying past the point where you are productive and happy is a bad idea. It applies to jobs, locations, bosses, colleagues, clients, and so forth.
Leave when your legacy is a gift to the company, not something for them to overcome.