How Do You Know When it’s Time to Step Down?

You’ve been CEO at the association for a few years, you’re three months into the new term of a chairperson and despite everything you’ve tried you know that you’re not going to be able to develop a true partnership with the new chairperson, who may very well be chair for the next two years.

You’ve been in your post for a number of years. Everything is moving along smoothly. The chairperson and the board understand their roles vis-à-vis your role as CEO. The association has been hitting its strategic and operational goals and incremental progress has made in each of the last few years. During your first few years, major breakthroughs occurred, but recently no revolutionary change or significant innovation has occurred.

Things have been going fairly well, but because of the typical officer succession patterns you have reason to believe that in 2 years the next chair will be problematic. You’re aware of this person’s abrasive behavior and the hell he / she put another executive through at a different association where he / she was previously a chairperson.

Are any of the above scenarios reasons for stepping down from your position? Maybe, maybe not.

Making The Decision

In deciding whether or not to leave, you need to step back from the immediate frustration or concern and look at the bigger picture. Ultimately, you need to ask yourself some tough questions, be brutally honest with the answers and be willing to accept them. Even if there are no specific events that set off alarm bells, periodically you need to engage in a brutally honest assessment as you explore whether it is time (or not) to leave.

As a CEO, one question I asked myself each year was, do I really have what it takes (the knowledge, ability and attitude) to continue to advance the organization or are circumstances such that someone else might be able to do a better job? The fact is that you may very well have the knowledge and ability, but other circumstances beyond your control may preclude you from advancing the organization. And, don’t under value attitude; if you don’t have the passion, life is too short to stay.

Of course, there are other signs that it may be time to leave. For example, if you experience a decline in respect from some of the board members or find your impatience with the board growing, it may be time to leave. Likewise, if it is getting harder and harder to sell your ideas and it seems like you can’t do anything right, the time is probably right to move on.

Equally important, if you are becoming stagnant and feel as though you can’t continue to learn, grow and be challenged, it might be time to leave. And, if you are consistently unhappy, stressed and / or negative, you owe it to yourself to seriously consider change; the question is, do you need to change / recalibrate internally or do you need to change jobs? Only you know the answer.

Develop a Proactive Plan

You don’t have to wait for these signs and symptoms to surface before seriously considering an exit. In fact, it’s important that you proactively develop a plan for your career growth and happiness. If you don’t, no one else will. Take a moment today and reflect on where you want to be in three or five years and then create a personal strategy to get there. Do so even if you love your job and are having the time of your life: circumstances change as chairs change and boards evolve. You are a successful CEO of your association, be a successful CEO of your future.

What to do in the Meantime

Of course, unless you are financially well off you won’t be able to leave until you have another opportunity. Hopefully, you’ve focused on continually developing your network throughout your career. But, even if you have, it will most likely take a while to find the perfect opportunity.

During this time you have a choice: you can choose to be happy and continue to grow or you can choose to be miserable. Go to work each day with the objective of learning something new. Make a commitment to not let others control your feelings. Identify some projects that you would enjoy working on and where you know you can make a difference and delegate the other stuff. And, remember Winston Churchill’s words: Destiny is not a matter of chance, it’s a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.

3 Responses

  1. Great post Robert.
  2. Good thoughts. A key point is remaining true to yourself, asking hard questions and being willing to honestly look at your impact rather than just going through the motions. Better to make the choice than the other way around.
    • Robert Nelson
      Well put, Jean. When you mention "honestly look at your impact," it reminds me of the importance of considering both your positive and negative impact(s).

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