To Leave or Not to Leave | The Value of Planning for Your Executive Departure
By Karen D. Conlon, MCAM | President & CEO | Sequoia Grove Consulting
When is it time to leave? All association CEOs ask themselves this question at some point in their career, especially when facing difficulties with board members. But choosing to leave the CEO role isn’t always about those bumps in the road. I’ve known several CEOs who determined it was time to leave when their jobs were moving along quite smoothly. The answer to the question is not only a personal one but most definitely not an easy decision. I made and announced my decision to leave in December 2013.
My 23-year role as CEO of the California Association of Community Managers began in April 1992 when the then Chair of the organization approached me about taking on the CEO role. CACM was a newly-formed start-up association with about 200 members and $220,000 in revenues. Our goals included developing a state-specific certification program and the supporting education for professionals who managed homeowners associations. The industry leaders felt this path was far better than a licensing threat by the State.
By October of that year, the certification program launched with a solid foundation that continues to carry it through even today. Those early years were difficult, challenging, and exhilarating as any new business venture would be! As CACM grew in membership (3,000) and revenues ($3.4M), we began receiving both national and international recognition not only for our certification, certificate, and education programs, but also as a model for other associations on how we transitioned our association governance structure to a more effective one.
Along the way, CACM was featured in The Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations as an organization that had developed core competencies for an industry where none had previously existed. In 2014, CACM was named a Power of A Silver Award winner from ASAE for our educational Specialty Certificate Program. The Power of A Awards recognize a select number of organizations annually that distinguish themselves with innovative, effective, and broad-reaching programs and activities that positively impact America and the world.
My journey to discover “when it is time to leave,” started about five years ago. Having been the only CEO for CACM gave me great pause, and I felt even more responsibility to identify what principles and procedures the Board of Directors should have in place for a CEO succession plan. I remember reading about and was dumbfounded that high profile, for-profit companies experienced great difficulties when a change in leadership occurred because they never had any semblance of a succession plan. I wasn’t yet ready to let go but knew it was critical to start the conversation with my Board of Directors. I also was very lucky to have colleagues with whom I could discuss my thoughts and who kept our conversations confidential.
Luckily, we already had in place an emergency succession plan, which, by the way, I recommend all association executives should develop. Life has a way of sometimes getting in the way of our jobs, and the proverbial “getting hit by the bus” syndrome is one not to ignore. Just the thinking process alone to establish a plan under this scenario is worth the outcome. Don’t think of it as a threat to your role as CEO; it is simply good risk management for the organization you lead. (It also defines who you are as a leader.)
Over the next few years, I encouraged on-going conversations with my board at our annual strategic visioning program with the focus of developing specific succession planning procedures being a benefit not only to them but especially for our members. A CEO position profile and detailed job description was prepared and reviewed annually by the board. The position profile was critical in helping the board to accept and approach the plan a bit differently, rather than being nervous about “when” I might decide to leave.
When the conversation did center around my leaving CACM, I always emphasized the focus should not be about replacing me. The focus should be on hiring the best CEO they could find. Identifying the type of leadership habits, critical thinking skills and personality type they wanted in their CEO became the driving factors for the position profile.
When I did announce that I was retiring as CEO in December 2013, I made a personal commitment to give them and my staff a 12- month notice. Yes, I can hear you gasp at the length of the timeframe, but for this particular situation, I felt it was appropriate. Never having been through a CEO search, and having been their only CEO, I knew it would take some time to go through the transition process to hire my successor.
The board immediately appointed a CEO search committee, who in turn would hire the search firm. They asked me to be a non-voting member of the search committee and eventually we hired Sterling Martin Associates. The search firm is a critical component, not only for the search committee, but should be viewed as a partner in the overall process. Sterling Martin turned out to be the right partner for CACM.
As the search narrowed and an experienced association CEO was hired, I also served a role in onboarding my replacement. There aren’t many individuals who, when being hired as a new CEO, would even want the out-going CEO around the office. We lucked out, and the new CEO welcomed the transition process and appreciated the luxury of being able to tap into my industry knowledge. The staff also embraced the overall process and welcomed the new CEO.
There were never any moments that I felt I’d left too soon. I knew I was ready for a change and have moved on to consulting and training on association issues such as governance, education, succession planning, strategic visioning, and, of course, homeowner association issues. Was it a scary proposition walking away from a paycheck? Yes. Any regrets? Absolutely not. Would I have done anything differently? Perhaps, but not very much.
So I have to ask – are you thinking about leaving? Been there and done that. I wish you well on your journey and thank you for letting me share mine.
Karen D. Conlon, CCAM, is a seasoned senior executive and corporate director recognized for combining in-depth knowledge of board governance and compliance with sound strategy in the real estate sector, specifically common interest development management. She has more than 34 years of experience in the community association management industry.