This is the third article in our 4-part series examining the topic of CEO succession in the engineering and construction (E&C) industry and how to overcome the obstacles associated with new executive transitions (Read part one and two here). The first two articles centered on the incoming CEO—the early warning signs of CEO derailment—as well as the crucial personal development needs that strengthen the transition process. In this article, we put the focus back on the exiting CEO. Departing an organization is a challenge for most all CEOs, and we’ll navigate the emotional hurdles associated with letting go, and how to enter into a new phase of life with intention, purpose, and clarity.
Norman Lear, 93-year-old iconic television writer and producer, provides this salient advice for individuals experiencing transitions in life: “There are two small words that are the most important words in the English dictionary: over and next. And we don’t pay enough attention to them. When something is over, it’s over, and we are onto the next. And if there was to be a hammock in the middle between over and next, that would be what is meant by living in the moment.”
Every CEO, whether a founder or former successor, eventually comes to the end of his or her turn at the wheel. If the transition is well planned, the process could take years before he or she walks out the door for the last time. If the plan is assumed or hastily constructed, the execution of the transition will be compromised.
What is it that makes this transition from a life’s work such a challenge? CEOs are incredibly driven, entrepreneurial, and passionate about the work they do and the organizations they lead. They are purpose- and impact-oriented; it’s not easy to turn that switch off. For better or worse, work often becomes a central part of a leader’s identity.
That’s one of the reasons why this phase between “over” and “next” is where so many CEOs start to get cold feet. One significant way to deal with this inevitable crisis of will is to shift your focus. Rather than dwell on what you might be losing—position, identity, the thrill of winning, the adrenaline of pursuing a well-calculated risk—consider the meaning and legacy that you’re leaving behind. If you haven’t already done it, now is the time to establish those bedrock values that will continue to define what was formerly your company, especially if your name is on it!
Of course, this is not as easy as it sounds. Those first values that come to mind are often what Patrick Lencioni calls “pay to play” values—Safety, Integrity, Respect, etc.—which serve as the minimum standards of business behavior, not differentiators. Those values will likely be true for any of your competitors that want to stay in business very long as well. Make the investment in getting professional guidance (if necessary) to get clear on your bottom line values. It is that important. By establishing an enduring vision for the future is a powerful way to create a lasting bridge that will serve both current and future owners well, you’ll have a say in the overall direction of the company, while energizing future leaders to pursue an exciting future that you helped create and will carry forward.
Shifting Your Focus
Before shifting your focus toward the future, give some thought to all the people you’ve impacted during your career. It’s worth writing down the great relationships you’ve fostered in the community, all the clients you’ve built great projects with, and the end users of what you have helped create. Now think about the people who have worked for you—the ones you’ve watched grow from a green hand and into capable leaders—the ones who received a second chance, and those who rewarded you with a lifetime of grateful service. Your legacy will be much more than an organization; it will be the lives of the men and women you’ve worked with over these many years.
Before you are fully able to turn loose of control, give some careful thought to what comes next. In a recent discussion with a CEO beginning this phase of transition highlights, we heard an honest and common admission of this struggle with next—“I’d be fooling myself and others by saying I’ve figured this thing out. When asked how things are going, my recurring mantra is straightforward—This is where I am at today.” The simplicity of this approach acknowledges the complexity of both the deep emotion and the uncertainty surrounding the departure from your life’s work.
Over the Finish Line
As the finish line comes into focus, how can you best approach what is over the next horizon? Marshall Goldsmith, the man who wrote the book on the journey through succession (Succession: Are You Ready?), canvassed and interviewed numerous executives leaving their post and heading into the next phase of life. From these discussions, three recurring themes surfaced as key contributors to succeeding in the next step—contribution, meaning, and happiness.
In other words, find where you can contribute, clarify what brings you meaning, and examine what creates your happiness. And while the answers might prove difficult during this fluid process of transition, these questions can help guide you:
- When I am working in my sweet spot, what parts of me are most energized? Getting clear on what aspects of the work energize you (and what doesn’t), will help you determine which deeply -held characteristics truly drive your passion. Understanding what drives you can serve as an important focus for your next phase of life.
- Considering what energizes me, how can I best tap into that in the next act of my life? Through discussion with CEOs, an exploratory phase seems to be supportive in answering this question. Canvasing your options by exploring different interests, fields, courses, or hobbies may lead down a path not considered before, serving as an energizing and contributing endeavor to bear your gifts.
- Where will I draw meaning? Holding the position of CEO brings with it the ability to have tremendous influence and impact on those around you. When you leave, the circle of influence will diminish greatly. Most leaders thrive on their ability to make an impact, and draw meaning from this type of work. Yet, being a leader also brings with it numerous tasks that divide your attention. Now is the time where you can narrow focus to what truly matters to you, and throw your undivided attention toward it.
- Have I considered how stepping into the next phase of life will impact my spouse and loved ones? A spouse and family serve as grounding rods when we return from work and the people most responsible for sacrificing to create space for you to pursue your passion. . Holding candid, honest discussion about the feelings surrounding the transition can create unified pathways to step fully into the next act, together.
Ready to Step Away?
Stepping away can be a disorienting event. Change of this magnitude is hard and deeply felt by any CEO, which means you are not alone. But letting go does not have to be the end of the road. To this point, much of your leadership has been about building—building wealth, a great business, a strong reputation, a strong client base, and so forth. Yet as you step away, there may be a period where rest and recreation are needed to replenish your energy and experience the act of slowing down. Rest assured, though, that a time will return in which your internal itch for purpose and focus will come back to life. This is okay, and perfectly normal.
And as you enter into this celebratory chapter of your life, consider the three common things CEOs have done to experience success during this final leg. They have:
- Looked back with legacy in mind.
- Looked within for clarity about how they’re wired and where they draw meaning.
- Looked ahead with an eye toward living a focused and purposeful life.
Be gentle on yourself through this process; it will take time. Don’t go it alone, but incorporate those whom you trust into the process. As the transition unfolds, focusing on the right questions will bring more clarity, and as you come to understand what is over and what is next, you will come to embrace a fulfilling encore chapter of your life.
Goldsmith, Marshall (2009). Succession: Are you ready? Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.