UK: Stepping Down: Thoughts From A Retiring Leader

Last Updated: 31 May 2017
Article by Tony Cohen

Succession, transition, change, transformation, adjustment – retirement! There's a lot to think about as I step down from my role as Vice Chairman at Deloitte UK.

Having spent many years working with families and helping them through the challenges that succession brings, I am now finally doing it for myself. As I approach the end of a long career at the firm, I'd like to share my personal experiences as well as those that I have previously seen in a professional capacity.

So, here are three key feelings to be aware of, amongst the many associated with stepping down from a senior leadership role.

Losing Control

Business leaders are used to being in control, and on handover we are faced with losing that control as we pass it to others. Surely the next generation don't really know what to do with it, or indeed how to handle it? We all know deep down that nobody is indispensable. And yet...

We desperately want to do 'the right thing' when handing over control, but now struggle to determine what that is. Should we stay out of it and let the new generation handle everything? Or should we jump in and point out how we would have done things? Is it better to retain control until the last minute (for the benefit of all, clearly...), or to slowly taper off as we hand over the reins?

Neediness

Depending on how these questions are answered, leaders might find that they begin being omitted from important conversations, and that others are now approached for their views when a decision is to be made.

We know that this is right, and indeed many of us will have spent our entire careers trying to 'make ourselves redundant' – but that doesn't really help how we feel.

An appropriately aware next generation might anticipate this and behave accordingly. So what does this look like? Continue to involve us in decision making, and seek our thoughts on the matters which need to be decided? This might help, although still feel unfamiliar and strange. Ultimately, my experience is that we are likely to question every aspect of the new status quo and our successors' behaviour as we try to cope with the difficult transition.

Guilt

Equally unfamiliar are the feelings of guilt. So many people have relied on us for their careers and their livelihoods. Are we not being selfish by handing this responsibility over to the next generation whilst we disappear into a world of making choices only for us? What will the impact of the change be on others? We know that the next generation are as good as, if not better, than us, but it doesn't stop the feeling.

The next generation are busy enough as it is, and are now receiving our responsibilities as well – this must be right because we can't keep going forever, but it still doesn't feel fair on them, even when they tell us that it's fine.

So, what should we do?

For families, my first tip is simply to recognise that these feelings and many others will abound. Secondly, talk about the fact that they exist, and discuss as a group how best to remain aware of them and approach them together. Understand, for example, that the same conversations of reassurance will likely have to take place time and time again.

As outgoing leaders, our job is to share how we are feeling – tricky. Perhaps think of it as further education for the next generation, for they will experience the same thing in due course. How great it would be to know that you had helped them through a difficult time because of what you had taught them all those years before.

As ever (and with so much in family enterprise), truly open communication really is the key. Even when we know that this is the answer, we don't seem to do it, so aim higher. It may feel like over-communication at the time, but I have no doubt that in this regard, 'more is more'.

So, did I follow my advice...

What do you think?

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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