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Ten steps to leaving an organization in good hands

January 01, 2006

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.

Develop an exit strategy: Permissions, procedures, and processes to guide the disengagement process. The separation of leaders from their organizations is like the process of terminating a service relationship between a therapist and a client. This process can be actively managed by acknowledging the leader's future disengagement, providing the leader with “permission” to disengage, and creating rituals that facilitate loosening the bonds between the leader and the organization.

These healthy permissions, procedures, and processes provide an antidote to more toxic processes that sometimes accompany career disengagement, including agency boards’ angrily scapegoating and prematurely extruding a longtime leader, leaders precipitously disengaging, and leaders setting their replacements up for failure (e.g., withholding critical information or creating staff antagonism toward the new leader).

Leaders who do not prepare themselves emotionally for this end-stage are prone to prolong the disengagement process by retiring and then returning—again and again. Where a founder/leader has long been at the center of the organization's emotional life, an outside consultant may be helpful in planning, facilitating, and evaluating the disengagement and leadership transfer process.

Create leadership development and succession plans (and create them early). The leadership development plan ensures development of a cadre of leaders capable of assuming the organization's leadership reins. Such plans outline strategies to identify aspiring leaders and to develop these leaders through further academic training, internal or external leadership development institutes, and mentorship opportunities. Leadership development requires time and resources, making it important to develop and implement such plans long before key leaders leave their full-time positions.

Like a number of organizations, Chestnut Health Systems (CHS), based in Bloomington, Illinois, has a large core of its long-tenured executive, managerial, and clinical leaders who will retire within a rapidly approaching five-year window. To help fill this void, we utilize a 70-member leadership council (which meets quarterly for training, team building, and leadership development) and are developing a new supervisory training program and a leadership development institute for the organization's aspiring leaders.

A leadership succession plan structures the process through which current leaders will disengage from the organization and transfer their responsibilities. This plan should be jointly developed by the CEO, his/her executive staff, and the board's executive committee. The board's duties are to insist on leadership development and succession planning and to monitor these plans’ implementation.

Succession planning at CHS involves two distinct scenarios. The first is a plan for the orderly transfer of responsibilities in response to the CEO's temporary incapacitation. The second is the interim transfer of responsibilities in response to the CEO's retirement, more sustained or permanent incapacitation, or death. CHS uses an Executive Leadership Council as its central management structure, and the council's ten members are charged with developing similar leadership succession plans for their units.

Develop leaders at all levels and in all positions. At CHS, our initial concern with leadership development focused on the coming retirement of our core group of senior administrative and clinical leaders. As we began to address this concern, we developed a broader vision of developing leadership at all levels. Fulfilling this vision of distributed leadership led us to screen all job applicants for leadership qualities, evaluate leadership as a performance evaluation dimension, reward leadership, and develop internal and external staff development resources.

As we help our organizations develop and recruit the next generation of leaders, it is important to see our field's and organizations’ needs with fresh eyes. Most of the current leaders entered their roles well trenched in addiction treatment's culture and values, but spent most of their careers acquiring the managerial and technical skills to lead their organizations. In this system, the career path was often one of counselor, to supervisor, to unit director, to clinical director, to executive director/CEO. As organizations have grown in size and complexity, and as the operating environment has become more demanding, replicating that leadership preparation style may not be desirable or even possible. The next generation of top leaders likely will need to bring great managerial and technical skills, learning addiction treatment's culture and values as they serve the field.

Solidify your legacy. As the end of our careers approaches, it is a good time to review our legacy and focus on bringing to fruition our final contributions. For some, that legacy will be a stable, financially solvent, high-quality service organization. For others, it will be a well-trained clinical team, the organization of some new service initiative, procurement of funds for a special project, mentoring one's replacement, or passing along knowledge in durable form (e.g., a book or training video). Reflections on one's legacy can help focus the leader's final years with renewed energy and meaning. Such reflections can identify precisely how we can best use our remaining time in our organizations.

Generating renewed purpose at the end of a career can help solidify one's overall career satisfaction and enhance the sense of “leaving while on top.” Many of today's aging leaders entered their careers during the frontier days of transitioning addiction treatment from a social movement to a legitimate professional field. Some will find great satisfaction in moving back to the field's frontier during their careers’ last stage (e.g., looking for new areas of service innovation or broader business opportunities that will help maintain the organization's core mission). The goal is to find a zone of activity in which a person can be as energized at the end of his/her career as at the beginning.

Pass it on (it's time for focused mentoring). The accomplishments that have marked our careers have been more than a product of our own intelligence, skill, and effort. Circumstantial luck and others’ guidance contributed to these achievements. Particularly important were individuals who believed in us, mentored us, and opened doors of opportunity for us. One way of expressing our gratitude for such assistance is to pass that encouragement and opportunity onto the next generation of addiction treatment leaders.

Courtenay Baylor, a lay alcoholism psychotherapist at the Emmanuel Clinic in Boston in 1913, initiated the tradition of intergenerational mentoring among the lay psychotherapists (the first paid addiction counselors). Baylor taught other lay therapists that their helping careers were not complete until they had recruited and trained their replacements. This master-apprentice tradition is still worthy of emulation.

We recommend that departing leaders increase their time teaching, mentoring, modeling core organizational values, and conveying the organization's and field's oral history to the coming generations of addiction professionals. Each of us must ask ourselves what distinguishes addiction treatment from all other arenas of health and human services, and try to convey this historical essence to those who have no memories of a world without specialized addiction treatment. We need to help the next leaders separate those issues that can be decided by expedience and consensus from those that must be decided by conviction. We have much to pass on, but those core values, core ideas, core service technologies, and core management strategies may be our most important legacy.

Arrange a proper good-bye. Most leaders and their boards have invested considerable time in financial preparations for the leader's retirement but have invested much less time in preparing for the emotional processes involved in such transitions. Many leaders are uncomfortable with disengagement's emotional aspects and sometimes prefer to avoid rituals such as retirement parties. Leaders need to recognize that such rituals have as much to do with the organization's health as with honoring their contributions. It is the exiting leader's responsibility to participate in rituals that facilitate leadership transition—a symbolic passing of the torch. These rituals serve numerous functions, from providing a venue in which everyone can expiate ambivalence about the leader's exit to providing a framework through which the leader can make necessary amends and express gratitude to key members of the organization and the community. Most importantly, this is a ritual to celebrate the organization's accomplishments and continuity.

Get out of the way (find new pathways of service). Leaders are often tempted to reengage with the organization (via contact with staff and board members) following their exit. One must avoid the temptation to sabotage new leadership and to be pulled into this role by others. A former leader must avoid the tendency to become a ghost that continues to haunt the organization through hidden communications. Laying the foundation for the success of one's replacement and supporting the new leader are the final assertions of one's organizational commitment and professional competence. A leader's final act is to get out of the way.

Every generation of leaders perceives its generation as special and approaches the end of their careers with trepidation about how the field will fare without them. But the historical truth is that new leaders will emerge from predictable and unlikely places, and the work will go on. We must trust the momentum of such history and the efforts we have expended to nurture future leaders. It is time for us as tenured leaders to prepare ourselves to step out of the limelight of leadership and find less visible, but perhaps equally fulfilling, ways to continue to serve our communities and our chosen field.

Addiction treatment's future hinges on how well we perform leadership development and transitioning. We have contributed and endured. The time is rapidly approaching for us to assume our rightful place as elders of this most unusual profession.

Acknowledgment

Support for this work was provided by the Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center (GLATTC) funded by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT). The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policies of GLATTC or CSAT.

William White is a Senior Research Consultant at Chestnut Health Systems, based in Bloomington, Illinois, and author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America.
Russell Hagen is CEO of Chestnut Health Systems and a Board Member of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers.
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