How to Know It’s Time to Go
What do Jeff Immelt, Travis Kalanick, and Howard Schultz share in common? Besides a healthy net worth, these executives were three of the 919 CEOs in publicly traded North American companies that either resigned, retired, or got fired in 2017—the most movement in the top spot in a decade. Transition.
Shultz wanted to get back into the workings of the business, specifically, the emerging Starbucks Reserve brand. After 16 years at GE, Jeff Immelt’s move was planned, but acccelerated by three months. Travis Kalanick left Uber after five major investors demanded his resignation—at the same time the company was short a CFO, CMO, Gen Counsel, Chief Diversity Officer, and Senior VP Engineering. But who’s counting?
C-level leaders with low social capital (a weak professional network) tend to stay where they are until forced to move. Executives with a broad network of business relationships are more likely to proactively explore options.
How can a C-level or senior executive stay ahead of the wave of corporate change and make an orchestrated transition rather than face an abrupt departure? Here are five questions C-suite executives need to answer when contemplating a move.
- Does the company need to go where you can’t take it? While few of us are omnicompetent, boards increasingly expect the CEO to be successful at everything. While a C-level executive needs a broad knowledge and skill base, trying to do everything equally well or attempting to create the impression you can do it all is counterproductive. If the company needs to move in a direction the CEO isn’t equipped to take it, the top executive needs to demonstrate the courage to move to a job that is a better fit.
- Are board conflicts increasing in frequency and intensity? Any group of highly-intelligent, honest people will engage in conflict. Patrick Lencioni reminds us that is a trait of a healthy team. The conflicts that signal it’s time for a move are more than disagreements about the business. When working relationships deteriorate into mutual toleration, board members transition unexpectedly, or when direction is determined without input from the affected executives, the forces of unwanted change are beginning to build.
- Are there more bad days than good days? If a C-level leader isn’t having a rough day here and there—maybe even several in a row, he/she is likely not doing much. When a leader dislikes the job more than he likes it or finds that her energy is gone by 10 AM most days, it may be time to find a place that will again capture the leader’s passion.
- Were you not selected for a promotion that fit your competence profile? While this is not a tell-all indicator, it is one to keep in mind. When an opportunity that fits a leader goes to someone else less qualified without explanation, or with an explanation straight from the marketing department’s pen, it might indicate it is time to move on. When you are not “in the loop” for important conversations, when decisions are made that affect you without input, or when responsibilities mysteriously get shifted to another team, change isn’t far away.
- Do you have a reputation you can’t outgrow? Although he has performed in a wide range of roles, when you think of Jim Carey, Dumb and Dumber or Ace Ventura quickly come to mind. Even when acting in a comedy, Morgan Freeman comes off like a wisened Zen master. Alec Baldwin is one of a few people in the world who can be a jerk and get paid for it. Actors can get type-casted. A leader can get role or reputation-casted. If an executive can’t convince senior leadership or a board he can perform well in another role, it might be time for a move. Every leader encounters a failure or two. But if a mistake or a period of poor performance hang over a leader like a cloud, it is time to consider a move.
Novelist Ayn Rand is right—“You can ignore reality, but you can’t ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” An effective leader is a prepared leader, someone firmly grounded in reality—even when that reality indicates it’s time to consider new options