I'm stepping down - do I have to leave?

Gordon Davis, The Daily Record Newswire

A few years ago I was working on a strategic plan with a midsize Canadian law firm. I started, as always, by saying, “Tell me what you think you want to accomplish.” They responded that they just couldn’t agree on much of anything and really felt the need for a plan they could all agree on. I suggested that we start by interviewing the partners to perhaps discover the kind of plan they needed. Through the interviews, it didn’t take long to discover what was going on.

The one remaining founding partner still had a very active practice and was a significant rainmaker. He also was a major behind-the-scenes player in Canadian politics. He had given up any direct management responsibility in the firm, and had turned it over to a new managing partner and a management committee. They were at each other’s throats on every issue. What became clear is that when situations got bad enough, they knew they could walk down the hall to the founding partner, who would promptly resolve the conflict.

The founding partner had stepped down, but he had not left. The appointed leadership did not yet have the trust and respect necessary to lead the firm. By default, the founding partner was still “leading the firm.”

When I tell this story to CEOs with whom I am working on a transition plan they always ask, “So am I going to have to leave the company when I step down?” The answer is, “Not necessarily.”

The issue for the Canadian law firm was not management and it was not decision making; it was leadership. We don’t typically think of law firms having leaders; the attorneys are partners after all. But all firms have leaders — if not by title or job description, then certainly in practice. And while leadership is many things, it is mostly earned trust and respect. The “leadership” of the Canadian firm didn’t have either one.

When a leader steps down from a long-held position, it is not automatic that the new leadership can lead and the others will follow. In any such transition it is important to recognize that:

• New leadership will be measured against old.

• People will ask “What would Jane Founder do?”

• New leadership wants and needs to set the direction for the firm.

 • When old leadership still visibly plays a role that is perceived to be making or influencing decisions, new leadership will struggle to set the direction.
So, do departing leaders need to leave? No, but the transition plan needs to be long in the making, with an emphasis on development of new leadership. A culture of trust and respect needs to be nurtured at all levels, out of which the possible new leaders will emerge. They will be identifiable because they are the ones that others will begin to look to with trust.

That does not mean they all will be able to step into the CEO role. It does mean that the person who has the other qualifications sought in a new leader will have the greatest chance of success — because that person is both trustworthy and trusted.

After finding the right person, a departing leader needs to let the individual lead. For the former leader, that means:

• Staying out of formal decision making;

• Avoiding sidebar comments about the new leader and the decisions that are being made;

• Trusting new leadership to set and execute the direction of the firm;

• Mentoring younger members of the firm;

• Project participation (management, quality control, senior counsel); and

• Marketing, with a focus on developing existing and new clients.

A departing leader who cannot do these things does need to leave. The company loses a valuable asset when this person doesn’t get out of the way. Someone who has nurtured a culture of trust and respect and has encouraged people to step up to their leadership potential should have nothing to fear in letting the next generation lead.


Gordon Davis, a partner in the Succession Consulting Group, has provided strategic counsel to firms on ownership, leadership, management and transition for 40 years. Contact him at gordon@gordondavis.net or gordon@successioncg.com.