When it's time to go, it's time to go. Really.
It is so refreshing to watch an entrepreneur step back and hand the enterprise over to the next generation of management. And do it willingly. That is precisely what Brian Lamb, CEO of C-SPAN, which he started 34 years ago, is doing by turning over control to his two lieutenants whom he has groomed for precisely this moment. The news broke Sunday night.
"Brian has been very thoughtful about preparing for this transition," said Glenn Britt, chairman of C-SPAN's governing board and himself CEO of Time Warner Cable, in The New York Times. Lamb "is doing this at a time when he thinks he's ready and he thinks the organization is ready."
Lamb, who also serves as C-SPAN's chief on-air host, thought it was time to exit as CEO. He will remain on as executive chairman. Lamb's replacements are long-time C-SPAN executives; he is turning over the reins to worthy successors. As he told the Times, when "you love something you want to share it with others."
That thought should be uppermost in every leader's mind when considering next steps. Focus less on what you give up, but more on what you will give back. It is natural for an executive to think about what he or she is leaving behind when stepping aside. There are perks as well as power. Neither lasts forever. What does stand the test of time is legacy—what shape you leave the organization.
My friend Marshall Goldsmith, a globally recognized leadership authority who has coached more than 300 CEOs, knows well what senior leaders think about the succession process. In his book, Succession: Are You Ready?, Marshall argues that CEOs need to be actively engaged in helping their successors take over.
Marshall advocates that a CEO coach his or her successors, and concludes his book with this important thought: "Even if other people don't know what you [the CEO] have done, your successor will. And more importantly, you will." He adds, "You will have taught your successor a great lesson: how to successfully pass the baton onto her successor."
The practical reason for an executive to help his successor is to make certain the organization continues to survive. Leadership at its core is not about self; it's about commitment to others. For an executive who is retiring that means devoting time to succession as well as to helping the successor understand the roles and responsibilities of the job.
It also means enabling the successor to lead his or her way. The challenges the new CEO will face are different from those of his or her predecessor. In short, you are not hiring a clone; you are hiring a capable leader who is adaptable, responsive, and courageous.
Philosopher William James wrote, "The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it." An executive who hands over the reins with grace and dignity—and much preparation—demonstrates that what he or she has done matters because it lives on in the people who continue the organization's legacy.