A Good Leader Knows When It Is Time to Step Down

Sometimes being a good leader means knowing when it is time to step down and let others lead.

I have been thinking about this a lot – several long-term CEOs that I know have wisely made this decision, knowing it is best for the organization even if it is personally difficult for them. I applaud their leadership.

And I personally have made this decision several times – stepping down as board chair or going off a board altogether. I have stayed close to these organizations, donating to them, acting as an ambassador, often privately consulting with new board chairs or CEOs to share history and perspective. For example, I was board chair of a startup nonprofit for six years. In the first years, all board members had roles beyond governing. We acted as volunteers in many capacities. My focus was fundraising and marketing. And I was truly responsible for these areas – I wrote the brochures, laid them out, printed them on my home printer, and distributed them. I created ads. I placed flyers in libraries. As the organization grew, I had to step back and — appropriately — hand responsibility for these day-to-day operations to staff members. Then came the time when I knew I also had to step down as board chair. This nonprofit was getting bigger and was going to run a capital campaign. I felt another leader would be better. The vice chair who followed me was eminently qualified. He had been a highly successful business leader in established and startup organizations. He had also chaired a capital campaign for another organization. Letting go was hard for me. I knew my successor would do a great job. But I also knew he would do things differently. I found I had to sit on my hands and bite my tongue for some months while the board and I adjusted to a new leader. But it was the right decision.

I served on another board for 15 years including four as board chair. I love this organization and its mission. But I reached a point where I felt less engaged. My interests had evolved, and I was busy with other things. I was not offering as much. Nor was I gaining as much for myself. I knew it was time to leave. And I did.

Questions to Ask About Stepping Down

So how do you know when it’s time to step down? Here are some areas to consider:

  1. Is the organization in a strong position? If your organization is stable, with good leadership, strong funding, and impactful programs, stepping down is straightforward. But if your departure would negatively impact the organization, then it may not be time to leave. Having consistency on the board is helpful when there is a CEO transition, a merger, a crisis such as a huge cut to funding, or a capital campaign. That said, don’t overestimate your own impact. No board member should be indispensable. And remember, you can still help the organization by making connections, being an advocate, and donating, even if you are no longer on the board.

  2. Do you have good bench strength on the board? If you have good succession planning, then you should have a queue of individuals ready to move into board leadership. This allows you to step down with confidence. In the organization mentioned above where I was chair for four years, we did not have the bench strength we needed. We had two-year terms for chair. But after my first two years, the person slated to succeed me moved to another state. So, I agreed to a third year. Then the next person slated to succeed me that time had an unexpected health issue and had to step off the board. So, I agreed to a fourth year. If we had had a better pipeline, I would not have had to serve for so long.

  3. Is a different skill set needed? Could someone else can do it better? As noted above, I stepped down when I felt someone with a different skill set was better suited to the chair role. Maybe your organization needs a board chair with change management expertise, one who has successfully navigated rapid growth, or one who has gone through a capital campaign. Maybe you are having HR challenges and need someone who has managed teams in crisis. Being a good leader means recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses and letting someone else lead when it is best for the organization.

  4. Are you placing the organization first? I have seen board members and board chairs who are serving for personal reasons and not necessarily for the benefit of the organization. If you are serving only to add to your resume, only to rub shoulders with other board members, or only to promote another service or another organization, then you should not be on the board. While it is okay to serve on a board to educate yourself or improve your resume, it is not okay if that is the only reason. And you should never be on a board to promote another service or product. Most boards do not allow this type of solicitation. The organization and its mission should be first.

  5. Are you just showing up at meetings but nothing more? When you reach a point as a leader where you are just going through the motions, it is time to step down. Maybe you are tired of board work. Maybe you are less passionate about the mission – either because the organization went in a new direction or because your personal interests shifted. Your organization needs your attention, creative energy and — well — your leadership. If you are not giving it your all, you should move on.

  6. Have you accomplished what you wanted? Sometimes a leader steps up because they have a goal for the organization in mind. I was on the board for an organization that was growing fast. It had rapid turnover of board chairs – several in one year – who left for different reasons. Governance was chaotic at best, and the CEO was not getting the support they needed. I decided to step up as board chair. I wanted to establish good governance policies and practices that I knew would be important as the organization grew and attracted larger donors. When the organization had only a few employees with a small budget, it was okay to be casual. But that was no longer true. We put in term limits and adopted whistle blower, conflict of interest, and document retention policies. We started a more formal process to approve the budget and to do an annual review of the CEO. After several years as board chair, the organization was able to attract support from several large foundations – money it would not have gotten before. And I was ready to hand on the gavel.

  7. Are you blocking new ideas? Have you ever heard yourself say, “We tried that before” or “That’s not our way” or “We cannot change, we’ve always done it this way”? If so, it is absolutely time to step down. Organizational memory is important but to maintain impact, every organization needs to evolve and grow. If you can’t allow that, then you need to go. New leadership brings innovative ideas, experiences, and energy to an organization that can increase its impact.

  8. Do you miss a lot of meetings because you don’t have time? You might love the organization and its mission, but your work or family are taking up all your time. You simply cannot manage getting to meetings. It is time to let go. The board needs a quorum to vote and if you never show, it can be hard to get that quorum. More importantly, the organization needs someone who can provide skills, connections, expertise, and thought leadership to make it flourish. Give someone else a chance – but remain a donor!

Always remember you can continue to support the organization – as a donor, advocate, connector – even if you are not on the board. Board members are often the most knowledgeable about an organization and good CEOs and board chairs reach out to former board members for thought partnership and institutional knowledge.

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