3.5-minute read

Executive positions often come with a shelf life. But once it’s time for someone in a leadership role to step aside, they may be reluctant to do so for personal reasons. How can you make sure they’re ready to leave when you want them to go? 

Start as you mean to go on: being up front about expectations

First of all, many employers need to do a better job of preparing their leaders for movement. Executives have to understand that their position comes with a built-in life expectancy. Once it’s over, they must be ready to either move on or stay in a different capacity.

That means when you appoint someone to an executive role, you need to communicate your expectations – not just in terms of timeframe but also from an outcome perspective.

The length of the mandate and the performance targets will differ from one job to the next. It could be an executive tasked with rapidly turning around a struggling business unit. Or maybe it’s the head of an international company’s Canadian division who’s expected to keep things ticking over smoothly for a few years. 

Whatever the case, my advice is the same: make the parameters clear from day one.

Take it or leave it: ultimatums for executives who overstay their welcome

Even when their mandate is over, some executives will dig in their heels when it comes time to leave. I hear about this more often with senior leadership, who tend to be more settled and have more commitments outside work, such as children.

I can sympathize with them—but only up to a point. Being willing to move on after you’ve done your part is all part of the deal for an executive. 

If an executive isn’t willing to play ball, you need to stick to your guns. Offer them an opportunity to go to another business unit. If they say no, then be ready to let them go.

Maybe you’re wondering whether that’s really necessary if they’re hitting all their objectives and earning rave evaluations? I believe that when your time is up, your time is up. Planned executive turnover will help freshen up your organization while giving outgoing personnel the chance to tackle a different set of challenges.

The long goodbye: proper support to ease the transition

I talk to a lot of executives who are given outplacement counselling. Many don’t understand what it is and how it works. That tells me it needs to be made more engaging and provide them with better information.

Years ago, I made the move from the consumer packaged goods business into the recruitment world. At that time, outplacement counselling helped validate my decision and steer me in the right direction. I appreciated the guidance I received, and I think companies have an obligation to provide their departing executives with robust outplacement support. 

In my experience, the three key components of successful support are:

  1. Giving the executive the chance to sit down with a specialist who will interview them about their skills and experience, then help them write a strong résumé
  2. Conducting an assessment that will tell them where their strengths lie and what kind of leader they really are
  3. Meeting with an industrial psychologist who will help them understand how they can do their best in transitioning to a new role

Counselling also has to go beyond telling people the obvious – no one needs to hear “get out there and use your network!” – and instead really help them understand how to negotiate the move and see it as a normal part of their professional journey.

Ultimately, the success of the process depends on both the employer and the employee being fully invested in it.

At the end of the day, executives need to accept that changes have to be made. Leaders with the right mindset will always find the next great opportunity.


About the Author

Philip Ferguson is the Vice-President, Executive Search, for the Strato Toronto office. After a successful career in the consumer packaged goods industry, including regional and national leadership positions, he joined Hubble in 2005, where he became a managing partner, providing oversight for the company’s Toronto offices for 12 years. Drawing on his business experience, strong network and understanding of client expectations, he has placed current and future business leaders in Ontario-based organizations of all sizes.


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