What is a good CEO exit strategy? Enjoy a graceful departure from your employer, business or board with your reputation intact
As CEO, protecting your reputation upon your exit from your company, board, or philanthropic organization is your first priority as you plan your departure. Your personal brand will follow you, and it is important your communications are carefully planned.
The Westgate CEO Exit Strategy Playbook lays out practical strategies for you to customize to your personal scenario. The playbook includes a resignation letter, scripts for internal and external communications, as well as suggestions for succession planning for you to customize.
Always consult an attorney and career advisor if you are unsure how to proceed. This information is for education and information purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.
Timing for your departure
Your exit strategy is ideally prepared long in advance of your actual departure, especially when a new board, investor, or team member disrupts an otherwise harmonious work experience.
However, sometimes this is impossible because of circumstances beyond your control. It is common because it happens often, and many executives struggle with a sudden change in the corporate or board structure. Feeling trapped and reactionary are two reasons many executives make hasty career decisions—sometimes decisions that can have a negative impact on your career trajectory.
My recommendation in this scenario is to begin planning now. When there is unethical or illegal activities underway, you will not have the luxury of a long runway.
If you don’t have time to plan and need to make a hasty exit, here are a few things you can do as you negotiate a new job offer.
Selection and vetting process for your next CEO role
It is likely you’ve been repeatedly recruited during your career or you’ve been with the same organization for decades. The idea of a transition can feel daunting, but when you’re fully prepared for the process, most challenges (real or perceived) can be mitigated.
Hiring a new CEO is a major risk to an organization and companies will take a great deal of effort to mitigate that risk by using due diligence tools, such as the following:
If you have a criminal record, such as a DUI for example, you may be able to have the record expunged. Check with an attorney in your jurisdiction.
Official letter of resignation
Customize this script to your voice and your particular circumstances. It is recommended to wait until you’ve received a signed employment or other type of contract offer, and have it vetted by your attorney before you present your letter of resignation.
This letter will serve as my official letter of resignation from my position as ______________ from North Pole Media. My last day reporting for work will be ___________.
After a great deal of consideration, I’ve accepted a position with a new organization. This unique opportunity aligns with my career goals as I will be serving clients in the ______________ vertical (expand briefly).
Of course, I will do whatever is required to complete my work assignments before I leave and will do what I can to ensure a smooth transition.
I wish North Pole, its employees and customers all the best for continued success and thank you for affording me the opportunity to help the company expand into new markets.
I want you to know how much I appreciate your support and assistance over the last few years as we ramped and executed on our business plans.
Letter to your boss (or personal note)
It is appropriate to tell your board chair you’re leaving in person, although sometimes this is not possible. It will be important to consider your fiduciary duty to the board and the corporation by closely examine your employment contract and other legal agreements.
Sometimes a telephone call is not possible, depending on time zones and other variables. It may be your relationship with your board is adversarial.
At all times remain pleasant, professional and appropriate. Email communications are dicey. Your information could be rerouted, misrouted, or land in the inbox of your new employer! Although not recommended, if you need to deliver news by email, here is what you can say:
Subject: from Elon Mast | Private & Confidential
Effective on ___________ (date), I will officially resign as CEO from North Pole Media.
Please let me know what you need me to do to make this as smooth a transition as possible for you and our board.
I will deliver my official letter of resignation to the Human Resources team by end of day today.
In preparation for my departure, I have prepared an extensive report on my deliverables, their status, and recommendations for the new CEO’s success. You will find this information on our server.
Email to your team and colleagues
Subject: Thank you, from Elon
It is with sadness that I tell you that I am leaving North Pole Media as of _________. You have been a tremendous help to me over the years and I will certainly miss working with you.
A unique opportunity has been presented to me, and I have decided that in the best interest of my family and my career. My work with North Pole Media has been outstanding, and I’ve enjoyed serving our customers and launching our Snowman product to the market.
Thank you, again, for your friendship and assistance.
Letter to your customers and suppliers
As of ________________, I will no longer be serving as your representative from North Pole Media. _________________ (new person) will serve as your key contact during this transition.
I want to assure you that your account/project will be in good hands with ______________ . It’s been an absolute pleasure serving you (working with you) over the years and I extend best wishes for your continued success.
Your Employment Offer
First of all, when my clients receive a job offer, I recommend they have it reviewed by an attorney before they sign on the dotted line. There are many considerations that need to be examined, and your attorney will know how to advise you.
I recommend you not disclose where you’re going next until after you’ve started with your new firm to prevent any sabotage of your transition and/or until your employment background checks have been thoroughly vetted and your employment contract has been reviewed and signed off by your attorney.
Long term exit strategy checklist—when you have a long runway
When you have a long runway for your exit, consider working with a trusted career professional who can help you plan. As you navigate your CEO role at your current company, think about what’s most important to you next.
What are your values today? Understanding what’s important will become a key driver for decision-making and identifying an organization that matches your values is key for work-life harmony.
If you have the luxury of time, here is a checklist you can use immediately to begin your exit.
Your career advisory board
In the early days of Westgate, I had the good fortune to benefit from an advisory board when I was conducting primary market research for our business plan. It was a one-time half-day event that was moderated by a talented facilitator, similar to a focus group.
There were six people (unknown to me) from various industries, including two national professional service firms, a media broadcaster and a few others.
I came away with significant amendments to the plan, but what was most helpful were the perspectives of others who had faced many of the same challenges. I have a new advisory board now that meets monthly and is one of the best investments I’ve made. You can do the same for your career or your new consulting firm.
Have a plan A, plan B, and plan C
Best laid plans for your career sometimes don’t work. One of our CEO clients onboarded into what looked like a reputable employer only to discover illegal activity. The owner had no idea of the illegal activity and the new CEO was left to pick up the pieces. Luckily for him it all worked out.
Sometimes it doesn’t.
Another one of our clients was faced with a suspicious event only two weeks after onboarding. He had a 90-day exit clause and immediately exercised it but was then left without another job to go to. Of course, this was extremely stressful for him and his family.
You may have a license from a previous career you could fall back on in the case of a swift departure from your organization. Plan B can easily be executed when you keep your CEUs up to date and professional licenses current. One of our clients had to make a hasty departure from his position and quickly assumed a job as a power engineer after decades of work as an executive in the commercial property sector.
His plan B bridged him between jobs enabling him to support his family and maintain financial obligations. After 14 months in the role, he accepted a new position as a COO in his same city. His plan B worked.
Plan C is the sunset career plan (post-retirement) which sometimes presents itself earlier than expected. If time is your friend, you can begin mapping out a business plan for a consulting firm long in advance of a forced or planned exit from your organization.
Regardless of your situation, having a board or career advisor help you navigate the complexity (and sometimes messy) of an exit can make the difference between a crash landing or a smooth touchdown onto the tarmac.
Westgate offers Premier Executive Branding and Career Consulting services for high-profile leaders.