The Art of the Retirement Announcement

A transition at the top can be traumatic for an association’s staff and volunteers. Giving them time to prepare has benefits for both the organization and the departing CEO. One soon-to-be-retired exec tells why.

Knowing when it’s time to go is one thing. How a leader decides to break that news to his or her organization is something else entirely—and it could have a long-lasting impact.

“The key is, by doing it earlier, when it’s a positive move, you give the organization time to plan for and execute a smooth transition.”

Over the past week, the broadcasting world has seen two of its iconic figures—Late Show host David Letterman and former 20/20 anchor Barbara Walters—announce their departures from television. Walters revealed that her last show will air sometime next month, while Letterman said he will step aside sometime in 2015. The two TV stars joined a growing list of New York celebrities to call it quits in a similar fashion: Before the 2013 Major League Baseball season, New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera announced it would be his last, and Mo’s teammate Derek Jeter did the same this year.

By letting their respective organizations know their intentions, Letterman, Jeter, and company gave them plenty of time to plan for the future. Pat Natale, FASAE, CAE, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), had the same goal in mind when he informed his board of his plans to retire at the end of 2014.

“I wanted to do it in a way that was smooth and transparent to the organization, so we could keep things moving forward,” said Natale, who has led ASCE since 2002. “We made the decision to announce it at our annual meeting last October, and with that to have an orderly plan in place to be looking toward the future.”

There’s no rule for how far in advance a CEO should inform the organization, Natale said, but, at the very least, it has to be more than a few months.

“Giving the right amount of notice is a real challenge,” he said. “The key is, by doing it earlier, when it’s a positive move, you give the organization time to plan for and execute a smooth transition.”

After informing the board of his decision, the next step was to put together a search committee. Natale serves as an advisor to the committee but keeps himself out of its direct work.

“When they meet to talk about the type of candidate that they’re looking for, the qualities and characteristics that they want in their next leader, I excuse myself,” he said. “I tell them that I have thick skin and hearing what different qualities they want doesn’t bother me, but my presence in the room might hold them back, and it’s important for the future of the organization that they don’t hold back. I still advise them and am on call for whatever they need me for, but my role is specifically consultant to the committee.”

ASCE plans to hire Natale’s successor in time to introduce him or her at its next annual meeting and to allow for a period of overlap when both executives are on board together. That way, “I could be introducing them around to the appropriate people to help them move the organization to the next level,” Natale said.

As for his own work, Natale is staying focused on leading ASCE forward. The association is in the process of reevaluating its global strategy and is working on several initiatives, all of which keeps him busy and helps him avoid the “lame-duck” feeling.

“You just have to keep looking to the future,” he said. “Obviously, I won’t be directly involved in the implementation of the future, but I ought to be teeing that up. That’s keeping me energized. Every once in a while I’ll think, ‘Gee, I’m not going to be here to implement this.’ But I can sit back and say, ‘Yeah, but I helped get it started, and I can help launch it.’ Maybe it’s a legacy thing, or maybe it’s just the idea that I’m doing things the right way to the end.”


Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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