“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” – Lao Tzu
I had an interesting conversation with someone recently about leaders and exit strategies. The main idea of the discussion was that, unfortunately, many leaders have no idea what their organizations might look like without them. What’s worse, many of those same leaders also seem to have no interest in the topic.
I suppose there are lots of reasons for that, but we can save them for another post. In the end, why you don’t have a plan for life without you as the leader isn’t the issue. The issue is simply that you can’t call yourself a great leader if your organization isn’t prepared to flourish without you. If you are leading an organization and haven’t worked through what happens when you’re gone, here are a few things to think about.
What happens if you get hit by a bus? Lots of leaders I talk to (particularly those under the age of 50) say over and over again that their departure is far enough away that they don’t have to plan for it yet. That’s ridiculous. I could come up with a dozen reasons why those plans might change, but they all boil down to one idea: you never know what might come up tomorrow besides the sun (good or bad). Don’t assume you have lots of time.
What about the organization? Most leaders care deeply about the organization they’ve been entrusted with. For many of them (especially if they’re owners or if they started the organization) it’s almost like another member of the family. Do you really want to leave at some point, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, and not feel good about the organization’s future? Even if you did get to choose when you leave, would you feel good leaving if you knew there was disaster on the horizon?
What about the people? Forget the organization in terms of the entity itself. What about the people who work there? If your departure meant tough times for your employees, perhaps even to the point of some of them losing jobs, would you sleep well at night? The best leaders care an awful lot about the people they lead. If you’re leading them into the middle of a desert and then walking away, how would you feel good about yourself later?
No one says planning your exit strategy is easy. Whether you’re talking about a short-term emergency or a long-term transition, you haven’t done your job as a leader if you haven’t worked through life without you. Don’t let your final act as leader be the part where you let everybody down.