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Jeffrey Sonnenfeld: 5 Tips For CEOs In Transition

ceo succession
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Today’s baby boomer CEOs are leaving office with confidence, ideas and enthusiasm, ready to assume new life missions unencumbered by the obligations of past roles.

ceo successionThe haunting chorus “No Time Left for You” from the 1969 hit song by The Guess Who offers a cautionary note to baby boomer CEOs approaching retirement age and contemplating stepping out of office. Ambitious people, they energetically climbed career ladders, calibrating the time it took to reach positions of great influence along the way. Now, especially given the post-pandemic appreciation of life’s fragility, they’re counting the reverse—how little time remains in life to do something more.

While some eagerly trade the daily grind for the prospect of more leisure time in retirement, CEOs, like musicians, artists, actors, physicians and teachers, often find work gratifying and a source of their identity. Today’s baby boomer CEOs are leaving office with confidence, ideas and enthusiasm, ready to assume new life missions unencumbered by the obligations of past roles.

In discussing his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates admits, “Until 2000, for the first 25 years of my career, I thought only about software development.” However, he anointed a successor in 2000 and created The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the world, with more than $50 billion in assets. His time is now devoted to its primary goals, which include addressing climate change, enhancing healthcare, reducing extreme poverty across the globe and expanding educational opportunities and access to IT in the U.S.

This is hardly an outlier example. When Indra Nooyi stepped down as PepsiCo’s highly effective CEO, she found ways to apply her leadership theme of “performance with purpose.” She took on economic development and other public initiatives in her home state of Connecticut, while also joining major boards ranging from Amazon’s to MIT’s.

When IBM’s Ginni Rometty and Merck’s Ken Frazier exited as triumphant CEOs, they launched the OneTen initiative as co-chairs of a coalition of 35 major firms committing to creating one million top jobs for Black Americans in the next decade. Ellen Kullman, after retiring from DuPont, went on to lead Carbon, a privately held 3D printing company, and join the boards of Dell, Amgen and Goldman Sachs. Others, including Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Disney’s Bob Iger, remained engaged by serving as chair or executive chair while taking care not to undermine their CEO successors.

There are several key elements of making this transition work well:

  1. Start planning for succession as soon as you become CEO. Frequently, CEOs are afraid that they’ll be seen as “lame ducks” with diminished authority if successors are groomed on the inside or available on the outside. That anxiety is misplaced and can lead to 11th-hour panicky transitions where no parties are properly prepared.
  2. Resist the temptation to interfere by being pulled back into your old position. The politics and personalities of past lieutenants and customers can lure you back into intruding on your successors’ domain.
  3. Don’t be afraid to try bold fresh adventures. Too often, CEOs are afraid they will move into a new role outside their sphere of past success and experience humiliating perceived failure. Fear not: Hitting a pothole exploring a new road will not diminish your past record.
  4. Respect the independent schedule of your spouse or partner at home. He or she may be engaged in major professional or community endeavors and not in alignment with your newfound freedom for recreation and travel.
  5. Be ready to say no thanks. David Rockefeller once told me that after stepping down as CEO of Chase Manhattan, he lost the excuse to politely decline invitations due to work obligations. As a result, he was chronically overcommitted, actually serving on 50 nonprofit boards, most of which he chaired!


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