Best before date: knowing when it’s time to move on

At the ripe age of 19 when I was entering my second year of university, my Dad retired from a very successful teaching career. During the final ten years of his career he had been the principal of a large high school that gained a reputation as one of the best schools in the region. I distinctively remember asking him why he would retire from such a successful environment, and he stated that it was time for fresh ideas and for someone else to move the school forward. At the time, I didn’t understand this. However, as I have progressed in my own career and life I have become very familiar with that feeling and have worked with too many people who simply didn’t know that they’d reached their best before date.

You see we all have one. Some of us are on a 5-year plan, a 3-year plan, or just a go until we know it’s time to move on plan. The fact that we have that level of inner awareness and reflection is great. Unfortunately, not every leader has that, and they keep going, well passed their best before date.

They become a risk to the organisations ability to keep progressing. They become resistant to change and fresh ideas, bitter and very protectionist. They believe that the work that they do is theirs, no one else’s. They forget that once upon a time they were hired to do the work on behalf of the organisation, and that work still well and truly belongs to the organisation.

We grow when we are uncomfortable. Once we stop growing, then eventually what we have been entrusted to lead will also stop growing and become stagnant.

So how do we help our leaders continue to grow?

  • Internal secondments. Balancing the need for stability, move leaders around in the organisation into similar areas within different departments, giving them temporary assignments before returning to their primary role. This takes resources and dedication, but it will make for more agile leaders who have viewed the organisation through a different lens.
  • On the same vein strengthen ties across your industry and promote intercompany secondments. Accept the short-term pain for the long-term gain. These opportunities strengthen our leaders and promote professional and personal growth. They keep good leaders motivated and interested.
  • Have the tough conversation. Sometimes people simply don’t realise they have reached their best before date. Don’t avoid the inevitable, and make sure you have open and honest policies detailing how leaders are expected to continually grow and develop themselves professionally. Ensure you allocate the resources to back this up (points 1 and 2).

It’s OK to admit we’ve reached the point where someone with fresh ideas needs to take over. It’s not a defeatist attitude. In fact, it’s quite liberating. I recently changed careers because I knew I was close to my best before date. Luckily, I left it before I’d expired, and I look back with fond memories and hopefully, my colleagues do also. Don’t become that bitter leader.

What does your organisation do to avoid leaders reaching their best before date?

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