Is It Time to Climb Down the Ladder?

The top spot is the goal of any ambitious leader---or is it? One prominent CEO who stepped down wants to change the narrative.

Richard Hytner gave up.

In 2006, Hytner left his position as CEO of global ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi, opting instead to become a deputy chairman in the company. As he told the Washington Post in a recent interview, the pace of the job had begun to wear on him: “I began to feel a real weight on my shoulders, particularly around the people decisions and the frenetic pace to drive revenue and profitability,” he said. “I began to really lust after a role where I could think more, where I would have more time and space.”

“I was rarely happy making the big, ugly decisions, yet really happy influencing the cause.”

Naturally, Hytner has written a book about this, Consiglieri: Leading From the Shadows. It’s something of an unfortunate title, given what I suspect the word “consiglieri” immediately conjures up in most Americans’ minds. But that plays into Hytner’s point: We’ve gilded the CEO with so much status and glory that every other leadership position seems stigmatized. There’s a term for those roles—“middle management”—and it comes up a lot when people discuss trimming staff. Hytner felt the pressure of that: “A lot of people thought I’d lost it, like I had suddenly given up on my ambition,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

But what Hytner has done isn’t so much “giving up” as recognizing that there are two competing responsibilities in leadership—the need to act boldly, and the need to act from a position of understanding. As he writes in the book’s introduction, it’s the first part that tripped him up. “I was rarely happy making the big, ugly decisions, yet really happy influencing the cause. So I decided to become a deputy instead of an all-singing, all dancing, always-deciding CEO.” In pushing back against what he calls the “cult of No. 1,” Hytner argues that a person who can counsel and inform leaders can be just as important—and just as emotionally gratifying—as being the person in charge. (Hytner calls the top executive an “A” and the consiglieri a “C”; the book is effectively a user’s manual for As and Cs on how to successfully work together.)

This is all well and good, but there’s still that lingering stigma of not just “giving up,” but of wanting to step away from a job that is supposedly the fulfillment of your professional ambition. In 2012 Leigh Wintz wrote in Associations Now about her decision to step away from her position as CEO of Soroptimist International of the Americas after 20 years. For Wintz, the first step was recognizing a few warning signs: boredom, impatience, fatigue. That can be hard enough to confess to oneself. But the truly difficult part is that most organizations don’t have a structure in place to handle a departing CEO. That may say something about the mythology that surrounds the CEO, who is imagined to always be around and always in command, even with ample proof to the contrary.

Feel like givi—er, redefining your leadership role? Good for you. Leaders at the top, though, need to provide a plan for the staffers and board members who will be affected by your decision. Wintz lays out a number of practical and procedural tasks for the departing CEO, and one important one is communicating the news. She recommends writing an announcement letter at the same time as the resignation notice. Controlling the narrative isn’t a small thing here; after all, the default narrative when a CEO departs is “she gave up.”

“I … really, really believe that it’s time for a new kind of conversation around leadership that stops this ridiculous obsession of ours in popular culture about the lone, charismatic leader,” Hytner told the Post. So what’s important to address in that conversation? If you’ve made the jump yourself from CEO to something else, how did you manage and communicate it? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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