The Not-so-Lame Duck

Talent Management

May 27, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

Last month, I compared the soon-to-be-retired executive’s worry about passing the torch to being a lame duck. Some might consider that a bit harsh. It’s really not. Being a lame duck isn’t the same as being a sitting duck — just the opposite. It’s an opportunity for an experienced executive to make those, tough, unpopular decisions that he or she knows are good for the company.

I say, don’t worry about finishing on a good note. Be more focused on putting your successor in a position where he or she will succeed rather than concentrate on finishing out your tenure in a way that will make you look good.

One of the greatest CEOs I ever met, in the pharmaceutical industry, made a series of long-term, strategic investments in his final year. These investments hurt the short-term performance of the company and negatively impacted the stock price. But in the long term, these investments paid huge dividends, benefited the company and helped his successor look like a hero.

This leader was more concerned about the long-term success of the organization than bragging about how much the stock price had gone up on his watch. This type of class and self-sacrifice is, unfortunately, far too rare.

Remember, the final year will be a last chance to do what is right for the long-term benefit of the company. Help executives use it wisely.

On the personal side, the lame-duck syndrome can have advantages. They can go home a little earlier. Spend more time with the family they may have neglected in the past. Go to grandkids’ baseball games once in a while.

Most importantly, encourage executives to start getting ready for the rest of life. They should spend more and more time finding a new team or teams to lead, and get them ready to pick up the baton of leadership in a new race.

Consider the different stages of the transition process.

At the beginning of the transition process, executives should be running at full speed. Almost all of their focus has to be on leading the company, with a little on developing a successor and not much on creating the rest of life.

In the middle of the transition process, they should begin to slow down. While they are still working on leading the company, they are deeply involved in developing a successor, and begin focusing on the rest of life.

At the end of the process, they will need to stop leading the company, be available, only if asked, to work on developing a successor, and primarily focus on themselves.

If you are like many senior-level talent leaders, you may remember how crazy executives acted when it was time for them to leave. Personal difficulties with transition are easy to observe in others, but they are very hard to see in the mirror.

Almost all of the leaders I have met assure me they will be different. They confidently assert that they will have no problems letting go. You too may be delusional enough to believe that they will be different. Take my word for it: While their desire for uniqueness may be theoretically possible, it is statistically unlikely.

One of the most important steps in readying an executive for transition is to make peace with the fact that it is probably going to be very hard to just let go, and get on with the rest of life.

But senior leaders who face the personal challenges of transition are much better prepared to leave than those who chronically deny the difficulty of doing so.

Think about your own experience. As a senior talent executive, you face an enormous amount of work, pressure and grief. But your job does come with a few pretty nice benefits. What those are depends on the type of person you are.

Do you see the glass half empty, or is it half full? Are you proud of your accomplishments? Do you enjoy the challenges of dancing close to the edge of a successful business, taking risks and even occasionally falling short of a goal?

Each of these benefits can make you want to keep leading — and make it that much harder to let go.