Tips for Leaving the CEO Perch

Moving from a top executive position to a different one can be a tough decision. Here are three tips from one exec who recently made the leap.

Earlier this year, Michael Gardner changed jobs. For more than a decade, he served as the CEO of the Gypsum Association. Since April, he’s been executive vice president, compliance programs at the International Code Council.

On surface this might look like something of a step back, but it’s a move Gardner made by choice—and “step down” is all about how you look at it. Last month, I wrote about Richard Hytner, a corporate executive who decided to step away from the CEO role, and much of what he discussed was the stigma that comes along with no longer being the top dog. That doesn’t jibe with Gardner’s experience, however. “When I think of my reputation or the way I want people to perceive me, I want them to perceive me as a person of virtue as opposed to someone who is concerned with moving up and moving on and always reaching and striving,” he says.

“There have been times where I’ve had to step back from wanting to make a decision.”

However, moving from the top of the org chart to a different position, even a relatively elevated one, isn’t easy. Gardner had a few suggestions for CEOs thinking about making the transition:

1. Listen to the voice that’s telling you it’s time to move on. Gardner speaks highly of his years at the Gypsum Association and how he was treated by the staff and board there. But, he says, “in a small-staff organization such as that, you really do run out juice after eight or nine years. [The Gypsum Association had a staff of seven when he left.] Once you reorient the organization, or once you put your imprint on the organization, which takes time to do correctly, you’re really in a ‘What’s left?’ situation. The challenges become less about trying to make the organization different, trying to grow individually, and grow the organization, to where every challenge you face seems to be a pain in the neck. You sit back, reflect and think, ‘It’s nobody’s fault, I just think I need to do something different.'”

2. Realize that you’ll get to lead, but differently. In terms of organizational size, ICC marks a big shift for Gardner—it has 270 employees. And as an EVP, Gardner still gets to play the role of managing staff and making decisions. But the job is unmistakably different from a leadership perspective. “There have been times where I’ve had to step back from wanting to make a decision, because I know that’s not my responsibility,” he says. “I’ve been very comfortable with it, but it’s a mindset that you have to get into. If you’re a Type A and you want to take control of everything…you’re going to be very unhappy, and really not that successful.”

3. Wait. Association executives field their share of job opportunities in consultancies, the for-profit world, or other associations. Some are CEO positions, some aren’t. However, any proposal ought to be measured against whether it’s a good fit not just in terms of salary, benefits, location, and the rest of the HR shortlist, but also leadership temperament. In Gardner’s case, he’d been courted for a while by a particular person at ICC, and felt confident about their working relationship before deciding to make a move. “Focus on the person you’re going to be working and working with on a daily basis,” Gardner says. “If that relationship doesn’t work, it won’t work.”

Regardless, he says, he doesn’t think of himself as abandoning the CEO role, just finding a better fit. “It was less about not wanting to be a CEO and more about simply wanting to do something different for me,” he says.

Are there other things to keep in mind when you leave a top leadership position for a different one? Share your thoughts 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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