Ten steps to leaving an organization in good hands

January 1, 2006
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The coming leadership exodus in addiction treatment requires effective leadership development and succession planning

A generational passing of historic importance has begun in the addiction treatment field. A mass exodus of long-tenured leaders in public policy, private philanthropy, administration and management, clinical supervision, clinical services delivery, research, and education/training has begun and will peak in the next five to seven years. This cluster of exiting leaders is a function of demographics—a generation of young people who came into the field in the 1960s and 1970s, rose rapidly into leadership positions, and are now poised to leave en masse.

This exodus raises the question of how long-tenured leaders can disengage in ways that enhance the health of multiple parties: themselves, their families, their organizations, their communities, and the addiction treatment field. This article offers ten suggestions on how to plan and execute such disengagement.

Time your exit. Two common pitfalls surround the timing of leadership disengagement. The first is premature disengagement, which happens when a leader physically and emotionally disengages from the workplace before officially retiring, leaving the organization without effective leadership. A variation of this pitfall occurs when a leader leaves on short notice or is forced out precipitously without developing resources to fill the vacuum created by the sudden exit.

The second pitfall occurs when a leader remains too long. There is a delicate balance in the relationships between a leader and the organization, the communities served by that organization, and the larger field. These relationships evolve dynamically over time and can reach a point where the creative energy that has sustained them has been exhausted. A leader should exit the organization and the field before that creative energy is exhausted.

But how do we know when that time has arrived? Consulting family, friends, and trusted colleagues can help sort out timing issues but, in the end, each leader must assess his/her own passion and performance to identify that time. Affirmative answers to the following questions are important indicators of a need to renew one's leadership role or plan one's disengagement:

  • Am I increasingly bored with my professional activities, drowning in a sea of organizational details that long ago lost their personal meaning?

  • Do I feel I am no longer making a significant contribution to my organization and the field?

  • Do I feel myself emotionally disengaging from my board, managers, staff, and outside professional responsibilities?

  • Am I spending more time as a leader looking backward rather than forward?

  • Am I concerned that my diminishment of physical energy or intellectual/interpersonal functioning is hurting my organization?

  • Could individuals inside or outside my organization provide better leadership than I am currently providing?

One of the most important things a leader can do is control the circumstances surrounding his/her disengagement from active leadership.

Deal with leadership transitions openly. Leadership transitions are best processed at all organizational levels by visibly acknowledging that:

  • leadership transitions will be occurring in the future;

  • the organization will intentionally manage these transitions through new leadership development and recruitment; and

  • aspiring leaders should prepare for future leadership roles.

Such communication assures key constituents that the organization will have leadership continuity. This preparatory stage involves acknowledging and celebrating leaders throughout the organization, consciously and visibly anointing emerging leaders, and disentangling the tenured leader's persona from the organization. The latter is achieved by conveying the message that the organization's strength is broad-based and does not reside within one person.

Define leadership transitions in terms of opportunity. Leadership disengagement can constitute an opportunity as well as a crisis. Such transitions provide opportunities for professional advancement and organizational renewal. For example, acquisitions or mergers should be considered at this time. Many organizations have not considered mergers or acquisitions out of loyalty to their long-serving leaders; the major obstacle to such possibilities is often the question of what to do with two CEOs. Thus, when a leader leaves an organization, it opens the door to explore mergers or acquisitions that would not otherwise be considered.

Leadership transitions are also a time to realistically assess the exiting leader's strengths and weaknesses, and what those characteristics have meant to the organization. All leaders have areas of competence and interest that become embedded into the organization's character. Leadership transitions are times that any imbalances can be identified and considered in new leadership selection. The board can assess the organization's internal strengths and vulnerabilities, and identify leadership assets most important to the future.

The greatest opportunities in the next decade will accrue to line staff, line managers, and upper managers who have had little opportunity for upward mobility because of managerial ranks’ low turnover. In the field's current leadership exodus, most organizations are not losing a single leader but rather a cadre of leaders. Replacing these leaders will create a ripple of opportunity within organizations and the larger field. The field's younger members need to be aware of these opportunities and prepare themselves for greater professional responsibilities.

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