Craig Dearden-Phillips: It's best to quit while you're still ahead

Chief executives who cling on for too long could be putting the future of their charities at risk, writes our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

Last week, I had a lovely meeting with the chief executive of VoiceAbility, the charity of which I was chairman until last year. VoiceAbility is doing very well indeed, thanks to the new leadership team that took over when I stepped out of the voluntary sector to go into business.

My own bit of credit in all this was in recognising when my time was up and voluntarily moving aside as chief executive. It pains me to say this, but this doesn't happen often enough in our sector. Many charity leaders appear to hang on far too long - often indecently so. This has always puzzled me. Clinging to a job by one's fingertips until your board finally prises them off, digit by digit, is no way to end the story. But so often this is the manner in which the curtain falls on a career. You see it all the time in our sector, and it's sad.

Why does it happen? Well, chief executive jobs are rare and people in them do tend to cling on like limpets. On a deeper level, though, I think that people in our sector, including senior leaders, often lack a basic confidence in their own value. This stops them believing that it is OK to quit and that other, perhaps better, things lie ahead. Sector leadership roles, being all-consuming, tend to leave our leaders psychologically dependent on the universe in the centre of which they sit. Even for the dissatisfied, only one thing is worse than their job - and that is not having that job. So they hang on way past their sell-by date.

By the way, I am not referring to older chief executives here. I was just 42 when I quit VoiceAbility. I had outstayed my useful purpose and it was time for a new face. My duty was to get out of his way, support from the sidelines and focus on getting my own life in some sort of shape. I did that and I am, to this day, quite pleased with myself for doing so.

So when is it time for you to leave the stage? Sometimes, it is abundantly clear. Your energy fails you in a very noticeable way. You find yourself rigidly bored by the things that used to fascinate you. There is this awful sense of treading water or going through the motions. These feelings can creep up slowly over many years, becoming your new 'normal'. In this event, you might, like me, need coaching to open your eyes to the reality of your situation.

But once you know the truth, you owe it to everybody - not least yourself - to act on it and go. This is because you can succeed only in a job about which you are passionate. Lose that vital energy and, however naturally talented you might be, you are a lame-duck leader.

I sometimes reflect on what would have become of me if I hadn't faced my own truth and left my old leadership role when I did. I suspect I would have put the charity - not to mention my own health and wellbeing - in grave peril. If you are one of those hanging on by your fingertips, you might well be putting it all at risk. So don't leave it too late before finally calling it a day.

Craig Dearden-Phillips, managing director of Stepping Out

Contact Craig, who writes in a personal capacity, at www.stepping-out.biz

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