Advice for Outgoing CEOs


February 12, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

Leaders who are getting ready to slow down and pass the baton often have a common fear: that they will become lame ducks if they announce their successors in advance. No one wants that to happen.

Almost every leader goes through this inner dialogue as part of the challenge of “slowing down.” This fear, which often results in postponing the announcement about succession until the last minute, inhibits what could have been a much smoother transition.

Face it: When you are nearing the time to exit, you will become a lame duck! That is O.K. Eyes will immediately turn to your successor as his or her vision for the company will mean more than yours. Executive team members who have encountered your disapproval for their pet ideas will just “wait it out” and resell their ideas to your successor. People will start sucking up to him or her – just the way they used to suck up to you.

What is the solution?

Make peace with being a lame duck – before it happens – and your life, your successor’s life, and the lives of members of your executive team will be a lot better.

In anticipation of his retirement, a CEO client of mine – one of my favorites – actually bought a stuffed duck and wrapped up one leg. He brought this “lame duck” with him to a few meetings. His direct reports and his successor thought this was hilarious. Beyond providing humor, this lame duck helped to break the ice about the potentially awkward topic of his upcoming departure. It put it on the table in a humorous way.

The moral of this story? Be a happy and productive lame duck.

Prepare Your Successor

Bear in mind that it’s not all that bad to be a lame duck. Use this time to coach your successor behind the scenes. Transfer power before it is necessary. Support your successor in whatever way you can. Build his or her confidence.

Involve your successor in important decisions and ensure as best you can that he or she agrees with your long-term strategies before they are announced. After all, this is the person who is going to have to live with these strategies for the next few years and is going to have to make them work.

The key to being a really great lame duck is to make tough, unpopular decisions that you know will be good for the company. Don’t get caught up on “finishing on a great note” or making sure that you look good. Focus on putting your successor into a spot where he or she will succeed. Make decisions for the long-term success of the organization, rather than the short-term performance of the company.

This type of class and self-sacrifice is rare, but in the long run it is best for the company, for investors, for the successor, and even for the outgoing leader. This is your last chance to do the right thing for the long-term benefit of the company. Don’t waste it!

Get Ready for the Next Phase

Now, let’s take a look at the personal side of slowing down. Letting go can have its advantages. Go home a little earlier. Spend more time with your family. Go to your grandkids’ soccer games every once in a while. Get to know your spouse again.

Most importantly, start getting ready for the rest of your life. Spend time exploring a new team (or teams) to lead. Get ready to pick up the leadership baton in a new race.

This is how you might want your transition to look.

At the beginning of the process you will be running at full speed, just like you always do. Your focus is still on leading the company, not so much on developing your success and creating a great rest of your life. This is normal.

In the middle of the transition process, you will begin to slow down. You are still leading the company, but you are deeply involved in developing your successor and now you are beginning to focus on creating the rest of your life.

Enjoy Yourself!

Near the end of the process, you will stop leading the company. Start being available only when asked to work on developing your successor, as much of this work has been done. It is now time to put your primary focus on creating the rest of your life.

This is what you want to happen. However, all too often this isn’t what happens. Often what does happen is the leader becomes so focused on leading the company until the very end that little time is spent developing the successor and practically no effort is made on creating a great rest of life. The result is a bumpy transition, a potential dropping of the baton of leadership, and a rough, unpleasant foray into the next stage of life.

If you want to do a great job in creating a great transition, look more like the leader in the first example, less like the leader in second example.

Be a happy lame duck!