Adam Ognall: 'I was the future once' - reflections on good leaving from a long-serving CEO

12 Oct 2021 Voices

Former charity CEO, Adam Ognall, offers some tips for others about how to hand over responsibility

I recently stepped down from being CEO of a charity after 10 years. In planning my departure and thinking how to “leave well”, I was surprised how relatively little focus CEO offboarding receives within the charity sector. 

Whilst there are many obvious factors for this - not least that leaving can be messy and complex - it is a noticeable gap. Capturing the knowledge, networks and capital of a departing CEO and having them help the new CEO get off to a smooth and effective start should be an ambition for all charities. 

There are some useful connected sector resources for example a recent ACEVO piece on founders and a relevant business literature but resources are far fewer than in other areas of leadership development and change. And so, my hope is that my 5 tips below that draw on my experience and learning, make a modest contribution to closing this gap. I share them with the caveats that I had the luxury of a long notice period and that I was not moving to work in a competitive organisation.

1.    Agree objectives and clarify expectations as soon as you can 

A clearly articulated set of objectives can reduce the potential for conflict and disagreement as to how your time should be spent. In my case, we were about to embark on the cycle to create a new three-year strategy. I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to do this, and wanted to ensure that my successor had the opportunity to lead and shape the process. Instead my focus switched to providing my successor with an accelerated understanding and to supporting the design of a process - rather than the content. Grab any opportunity to meet with your successor to learn their perspective - it is likely to be beneficial. 

2.    Communicate well to help manage others’ needs

The departure of a long-serving CEO can have an impact on a range of people associated with a charity - from team members, to trustees, to donors. Communication is key in this intervening period to help manage the change and provide clarity. Colleagues and others need to be supported through the uncertainty that a CEO departure can be perceived to create. This is not a point of over-estimating my or any other CEO’s importance but rather better recognising that with any significant change in an organisation there is inevitably uncertainty and disruption that can have a ripple effect. 

3.    Understand the role and attitude of your chair and trustees

Trustees need to invest in the CEO’s departure and the handover period. Failing to do so not only exposes the charity to unnecessary risks but also missed opportunities. There is a growing evidence base that “turn[ing] departing employees into loyal alumni” can create long-term value for the organisation. This explains why law firms and other professional service firms are increasingly focused on the relationships with departing partners, recognising the value that ‘good leaving’ can generate through securing clients and driving new business over time.

4.     Be transparent over your needs and ambitions

In parallel to having clear objectives, a CEO being transparent over their needs and ambitions for the final few months can remove any suspicions or tensions that may arise and create a space for emotional needs to be considered. Most CEOs will have projects and people they will want to prioritise as they depart an organisation they value and care about. This is not necessarily about “pet projects”, rather seeking to complete valued/strategic work.

5.     Don’t be shy - be proud to articulate your legacy

Although leadership and legacy are often mentioned in the same breath, I imagine many CEOs, like me, give little consideration to their legacy when still in post. Articulating your legacy does not have to be about ‘securing it’ or about ensuring you will be remembered for something. Rather it is an opportunity to reflect on what has been achieved during a CEO’s tenure. A proud articulation of legacy can bring practical benefits to the organisation and to a successor. It helps set out the charity’s strengths and can inspire and motivate through sharing ideas on how we succeed. It can also show the possibilities (or at least the pitfalls) of the role.

Over and above these specifics, the tone and approach taken by the departing CEO, their successor, trustees and senior management will determine whether the exit is “graceful” or successful. All involved in the offboarding have a responsibility to bring certainty, calm fears and to ensure effective and structured knowledge sharing. As important is creating capacity and space for the incoming CEO. Inevitably this requires a mindset shift which is of course easier to write than to enact! Improved guidance and resources can help with this.

Every CEO departure exists in a specific set of circumstances which cannot be downplayed. Even recognising this, ensuring “good leaving” deserves more attention.

During my final few months, I found myself repeatedly referencing former prime minister David Cameron’s “I was the future once” sign-off. It made me reflect on my time as CEO and the organisation’s future and was a useful reminder. 

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