‘I believe timing is a leadership quality’, says Newcastle CVS chief executive Sally Young. Here, she writes about a part of the leadership journey not often talked about: stepping down from your job.
Should I stay or should I go? This isn’t just a great song by The Clash but a genuine dilemma that leaders will face throughout their career. Sometimes there’s an external pull (that other job you have always wanted) or an internal push (you and your chair REALLY don’t get on), or there are major problems you genuinely can’t resolve at work. Of course, there is also real life – birth, bereavement, divorce/separation/relationships and illness – which often makes us review our priorities. But what if everything is going well: supportive board, finances and operations in order and it feels right?
When is too long?
I’ve often thought seven years in a chief executive role was the optimum. You are there long enough to understand the organisation and the role, change and deliver what’s needed, but recognise you can leave without the organisation being restricted to your style. Also, I like a challenge and a change, but not everyone feels like that. I have seen some great leaders who have been there for over 20 years and they continue to inspire and keep fresh and have lots of ideas – but often they are memorable because they are the exceptions.
This blog is being written as part of my departure process. I think I have the best job in the North of England; so why would l leave it when I haven’t another job to go to (and I have too much energy and not enough years to retire)? I recognise Newcastle CVS is at a turning point as we move into our next phase in our 90th year. We are going through a name change and rebrand. We have secured key contracts for the next few years. There is a high-performing board and the staff provide (literally) award-winning services. My leadership instinct tells me the organisation needs new creativity and dynamism to take it forward, and not more of the same.
Hopefully, voluntary and community organisations and our funders and commissioners are entering more into an age of partnership, connectivity and collaboration. Let’s leave the competitive procurement ‘era of contracts’ behind us as it’s just a drive to the bottom.
I’ve had an unusual work pathway – NHS, local Council, civil service (only 18 months but 18 months too long in my view – and theirs too probably), non-departmental Government body and the voluntary and community sector. I once dipped my toe into the university pond; then very quickly withdrew it. I regularly meet people who have been in the same sector all their working lives, and some who have always been in the same organisation. This worries me in partnership meetings: how can you understand or appreciate the demands and priorities of others, if you have minimal understanding of their sector and its pressures?
So after nearly nine years, I’m stepping down (with no job to go to) as I think the organisation and myself will benefit from the conscious uncoupling. It will be a long goodbye and I will be actively employed and support the handover to the next chief executive. I’m taking time to ‘re-calibrate’ as a friend calls it. So I believe an important leadership quality is timing, and it’s time for me to go.