What’s your expiration date?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on March 24th, 2016 in Thoughts & Commentary

0 comment

Recently, at dinner following a family funeral, my son asked the assembled masses:  “When are you no longer wise beyond your years?”  While there was no consensus as to the age at which this occurs, there did seem to be agreement that at some point in life, those people you would deem to be wise re just that, regardless of their years.

One of the characteristics of a wise person is knowing when it is time to say “enough.”  This would suggest that too few executive directors are truly wise, as way too many stay in their positions well past when they should.  And it is not for lack of contemplating the question, as I get asked all of the time by people who have been in their position for several years to several decades:  “how do you know when it is time to leave?”  There is a part of me that wants to say, in all honesty and sincerity, “If you are asking the question, maybe it’s time.”  For the record, I have never said that.

The night after the interesting dinner conversation, I facilitated the board retreat of an organization that is led by an executive director who has been there for many decades.  This man has not lost an ounce of energy, enthusiasm, currency, and passion since I first met him somewhere in his second decade of service.  He still inspires trust and confidence, and followers.  He was eulogizing a man who had been a mentor, and a founder of a first of its kind organization.  He had nothing but praise and admiration for this man.  And then he said it:  “He just should have left five years before he did.”  He then turned to his board members and said, “If I don’t have the smarts to know when it is time to leave, please just push me out.  You not only have my permission, you have my plea.”  That is a man who is wise.

There were many times this season when I, and I know many others, were thinking that Peyton Manning should have hung it up at the end of the 2014 football season.  Agreed:  running a nonprofit isn’t the same as playing professional football:  you actually need more stamina for the former (but the injuries are far more severe in the latter).

In 2010, The Wall Street Journal calculated that there are actually only 11 minutes of a professional football game, which generally take over three hours to go from start to finish, no overtime included, when the ball is in play.  There is an average of 20 commercial breaks (with over 100 ads), 17 minutes of replays and 75 minutes of people standing around, getting yelled at by coaches, other players, being told what to do next, etc.  In other words, when it comes down to it, a professional quarterback only has to be on and performing for 11 minutes out of every 180—or 6% of the time.  (Given that it is baseball season, the stats are about the same, again thanks to the Journal: 17 minutes and 58 seconds of actual action in a three-hour game.)

The point is that we all have to understand the full expectations of what it takes to do our job compared to what we have left in the tank to give it.  Recently, a woman said that she could not imagine going through one more strategic planning process with her organization, so she gave up and resigned.  Wise woman!

And while it absolutely shouldn’t be about what’s best and right for you, but what is best and right for the organization, often they are one and the same.  A leader who can’t muster the excitement of strategic planning for the organization is doing it a huge disservice by staying and going through the motions of what should be one of the most fun and exciting exercises an organization experiences every three years.  So, that is a win-win.  The leader who thinks he is saving the organization by staying on when he wants to be gone, but stays because there is no likely successor in sight, is holding back the organization, playing savior over forcing the board to step up to the plate and/or giving someone the opportunity to step out of the shadow.  Staying beyond our time is a function of ego and not a function of what is best for this organization we care about so deeply.

But to be fair, the failure to launch out of a familiar position is not just on the shoulders of the executive, but also on those of her/his boss.  I am amazed by the number of executive directors who complain about an employee who has long ago stopped performing at her/his peak, but aren’t willing to fire that person.  I get the same complaints from board members about their executive directors.

I am equally amazed at the number of executive directors and boards who allow employees to announce their retirement with a fungible moveable date.  (Every time I hear of this, I recall this hilarious, yet truly diabolical Candid Camera skit:  A young boy hits a baseball and runs to first base, only there was a rope attached to the base and it was pulled all over the field while the kid kept running after it trying to get on first).

One executive director told his board he was retiring in five years, and seven years later he was still there.  We don’t serve at the pleasure of ourselves, but, as an executive director, at the pleasure of the board.  And a board has to be an active agent in determining when it is time for an executive director to move on—even when that is not what the executive wants.

Time to move on has nothing to do with the time spent in a position.  It has everything to do with what you are still able and willing to bring to the position.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.