Deciding when to go

2nd September 2022

In this series on coaching managers in SMEs I have moved up the ladder of seniority. This time I look at when to leave as the leader of the company.

The person I wrote this to co-founded a successful venture with a staff approaching 100 people located in six countries across Africa. So it is no longer small or a start up and is structured for the next big leap in growth. Some founders stay too long; others leave to soon. Which is he? I wrote:

You mentioned that you would need at some point in the future to consider stepping aside to allow someone to bring different skills to the company. You are creative, have ideas, and enjoy initiating new things, but you don’t think you are so good at keeping things going over the years.

You don’t resonate with the corporate world and don’t get around to networking at the top level. Nor are you excited by negotiating corporate deals. To become the kind of leader who can guide a larger company would take a lot of learning. That is an interesting challenge and would extend your influence; but is it worth it?

Then you need to consider your own physical and cognitive health. You are already past normal retirement age. That in itself is not a problem – even older people have complex jobs like presiding over countries. But both age and length of tenure can dissipate the passion with which you began, and energy percolates from the top to infect the whole company. Do your colleagues need the vitality and fresh vision of a new person?

You regard yourself as steward of the vision and values that inspired the founding of the company. Have you built them sufficiently deeply into the DNA of the company that it will survive your leaving? Or is there still more to do? Guiding values last longer than strategy. Strategy must change as circumstances change, but values and the company culture they create provide both the true north that informs strategy and the foundation on which effective performance is built. Possibly the biggest legacy you can leave is a robust, deeply-held company culture built on values to which all staff are committed.

Culture is created through symbols, words, stories, actions, consequences, recruitment, training, and continual two-way communication. What people talk about and do habitually should be soaked in the values.

Is there a potential successor? Although you could recruit from outside, that is risky. So I think there should be at least one person internally or on the board that you would be happy to hand over to. Don’t leave succession to chance.

What about your personal aspirations? What competing commitments do you have that could take the place of this company in your daily life? If you don’t have any, you should begin creating at least one! Renowned management author Peter Drucker suggested that everyone should have a “second career”, in the form of a hobby or involvement in a social cause. He suggests beginning it in mid-career, so it is ready for your retirement or even earlier as a new career.

Retirement will leave a big gap in your time, your relationships, and even in practical things like keeping current with the latest technology and vocabulary. For example, would you ever have subscribed to Zoom for family and social events, had you not required it for work? Several of these considerations that can influence the decision to move on require preparation. The time to begin thinking about exit is years before it happens. So whatever your decision now, do begin preparing!

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. This is a coaching columns for Business Day, published on 22 August 2022 (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-08-22-jonathan-cook-deciding-when-to-go/).

If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit

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