When a Leader Retires

The retirement of a leader can be an unsettling time for everyone in the organization


Whether the retiring leader has been viewed as a hero or a villain, whether the organization is currently thriving or stumbling, whether the retirement is a surprise or long-anticipated, it is a complicated experience. Too often the focus when a leader retires is only on the search for a successor, which is essential but insufficient.

Why is a leader’s retirement complicated? Because the departure stirs up many normal, but often unanticipated and ignored reactions both in other leaders and in members. People often lack understanding of these and prefer to avoid dealing with them — to the long-term detriment of all involved. Even where the organization values thorough planning and has a history of well-managed change initiatives, retirements can be fraught with surprises. There is always a big impact on both the leaver and the many that are left! Both need a thoughtful plan. Here are several tried and true strategies for a good leaving and an effective transition.

Impact on the retiring leader:

  • There are some leaders who are inclined to “slip out the back, Jack,” as the Paul Simon song “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” suggests – being stoic or macho. We have a client who wanted there to be no celebration after twenty five years of highly regarded leadership; “I did my job; no need for any fuss.” A costly missed opportunity.
  • Avoidance of vulnerable feelings, especially fear about the future. The retiree likely is wondering “who will I be without this position, its title, and its status? And what will I do with my time?” We helped a long-time client to recognize deferred and unfulfilled interests and talents and then to make a plan for pursuing them soon after retirement – maybe after a wonderful vacation.
  • Uncertainty about the real impact of their leadership. “Did I really succeed? Do people inside the organization and outside stakeholders think I was effective? Or are they glad I am departing so someone smarter, wiser or more creative can take over and clean up after me? Do they think I am over the hill?” We have helped many leaders take stock of their accomplishments before retiring and to “reality test” these nagging concerns.
  • Questioning the sincerity of being honored. “Are they being sincere or is it a sham?”

Impact on the organization members:

  • Fear and perhaps anger at abandonment; how will we go on without this leader, who guided us through difficult times?
  • Fear of the unknown. Who will be the replacement? Will there be a reorganization? How will this change affect my career and my group? How will the work get done?
  • In the midst of uncertainty, the best employees, who have the most marketable skills, may decide to look elsewhere – a loss for the organization.

Transition tips to consider when a leader retires:

  • Make a plan. Regardless of whether this departing leader is beloved or disliked and disrespected, it is in the interest of both the retiree and the remaining staff that the change is well planned – and handled with dignity.
  • Find a way to say “thank-you.” From childhood, all of us are taught that this is very important.
  • Communicate to the organization about what will happen next.
  • Don’t get into a rut doing the same celebration for all departing leaders; try to tap into a theme that fits her/his personality, successes or passions.
  • Don’t do or say anything that is phony or exaggerated, but do recognize their genuine contributions.
  • Do include the leader’s entire department in a celebration ritual; to invite only other leaders creates a message of exclusivity that would alienate members. This is an opportunity to celebrate the retiree, as well as all the people who make the organization what it is. After this event, perhaps hold a smaller one for the special group of colleagues or the leader’s own small team.
  • Don’t hold a roast. Some people say they enjoy them; others are uncomfortable with poking fun at weak points or eccentricities. Sometimes roasts are used to get even, which undermines trust and morale.

In summary, the retirement of a leader may be the moment to work with an outside consultant to create an effective transition plan for both the departing leader and the remaining people. Our many years of experience with retiring leaders have taught us that appropriate and creative rituals are important to facilitate the change, enhance a culture of appreciation, and support everyone moving on in a healthy way.

You may also be interested in reading “Renewing Organizations in a Time of Change.”

If you would like to learn more about us and explore your options, please contact us for a complimentary consultation.