Quack with Dignity, Lame Duck


June 16, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

For many leaders, it is hard to make the announcement that they will soon be passing the baton of leadership to their successor. The common fear is that if they declare their intentions too soon, they will become lame ducks. 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 okay. Eyes will immediately turn to your successor as their vision for the team, department or company will mean more than yours. Colleagues who have encountered your disapproval for their pet ideas will just “wait it out” and re-sell their ideas to your successor. People will start sucking up to him or her the way they used to suck up to you.

So what’s the solution? Make peace with being a lame duck—before it happens. Your life, your successor’s life, and the lives of your coworkers will be a lot better.

In anticipation of his retirement, one of my favorite CEO clients, bought a stuffed duck and wrapped up one leg. He brought this plush “lame duck” with him to a few meetings. His direct reports and his successor thought this was hilarious. Beyond providing humor, this literal lame duck helped to break the ice about the potentially awkward topic of his upcoming departure. The moral of this story? Be a happy and productive lame duck.

And 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 authority 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 any long-term goals before they are announced. After all, this is the person who is going to have to live with these goals 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 in the long run. 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. This type of class and self-sacrifice is rare, but this is your last chance to do the right thing for the long-term benefit of the company, your successor, and even yourself. Don’t waste it!