Saying Goodbye the Right Way
On any given week in this great industry there are at least a few notable leaders moving on in life or in their careers.
Just recently Arizona CU System President and World Council of Credit Unions Chairman Gary Plank announced he was retiring. In a more unceremonious example there was longtime Credit Union ONE CEO Armando Cavazos' official retirement announcement and even more so the sudden departure of Mike Canning, executive director of the Association of Corporate Credit Unions.
In these three cases, the handling of the departures of these leaders was done very differently, but they were done. Some great CU leaders have moved on with barely a whisper. It makes you wonder if they were pushed out the door faster than you can say "yesterday's news."
Then there's the other extreme. There are those that are put up on a pedestal, with lots of hoopla surrounding their exit. Their retirement plans are made known months or even years ahead of time with almost too much time available for honoring their many contributions to the industry. Boardrooms and buildings are dedicated to them. Scholarships are made in their names, or in the case of such well-known pioneers like WesCorp's Dick Johnson, whole foundations are started. (Dick deserves every accolade he gets, just trying to illustrate a point.) I too am an example. I dedicated an entire column to former California Credit Union League CEO Dave Chatfield, though others also surely deserved it.
Why such variations? This is a bugaboo of mine. I'd like to see people get their due from the organizations they are leaving, but having covered many executive exits, I know there are a lot of circumstances to consider, and it's not always easy.
For example, even some great, great leaders find themselves in bad situations at the end of their careers and are forced out of their jobs. A few board members have it in for you, and you're gone, no matter how stellar your credit union r?sum?. I can remember an encounter I had about five years ago with a long-time, well-known credit union CEO who experienced just this fate. He broke down and cried when recounting his firing. He was now with a vendor, trying to stay involved in this terrific industry, but his glory days blazing a path of success at his credit union were far behind him and he knew it. Unceremoniously is an understatement for how his exit was handled.
There is no single, right way to handle an executive's exit, but here's the minimum credit unions should do for the following most common scenarios.
o Legitimate retirement. In the case of a real retirement, meaning the executive is truly retiring and/or has not been forced out the door, there should be at least a month's notice given to the outside world. PR professionals should prepare a press release that details the leader's contributions to the organization. Stats and facts are great. How big was the CU when he or she took over? How big is it now? Did this person engineer a name change or a charter conversion or take the CU down some new paths? Color photos of the leader should be provided. The leader should be prepped and ready to talk to the local and trade press. The leader's accomplishments should be tied into the credit union's success. A successful CEO's departure is a PR opportunity to also tell the CU's success story. The board should present a gift. Whether it's an engraved nine iron or a brick from the building the leader helped build, ideally it will have meaning to the leader. Have a party. Let the members know. Put a story in the newsletter. In other words, be proud of the leader and their contributions and don't shuffle them out quietly because the next great thing has arrived in the corner office. On an operational level, it may make sense for the exiting CEO and new CEO to work side by side for a few weeks to get the new CEO familiar with the job. These arrangements should not last for very long. There are inherent dangers in letting the old CEO become too much of an influence on the new person, no matter how well intentioned.
o 'Resignation' that is really a termination, with no foul play. These are all too common in this industry. A leader is ousted and the announcement is dubbed a resignation. In this case, the leader hasn't committed fraud or any other wrongdoing, he or she just no longer fits with the organization or has fallen out of favor and is forced out. In almost all cases, terming it a resignation is the right thing to do and is agreed upon beforehand with the leader. If the leader is near retirement age, it may be appropriate to term it as a retirement if the leader goes that route. Why kick someone when they are down? Unfortunately for this type of exit there is often no formal announcement. That's a mistake. There should also be a press release made up and an announcement put in the newsletter. Again, be proud of the person who led your organization. Too often personality differences or petty politics get in the way of this and the leader is all of a sudden gone, with the mailman the first to know. The outside world needs to know. Members have no confidence in a credit union that suddenly has a change at the top with no mention of it anywhere. Now if things are ugly and gag orders have been built into the termination agreement, which is often the case, work around it by having some agreed upon quotes made up for the press release that both sides can live with. Saying nothing is always the worst answer.
o A legitimate termination for cause. A good example of this is former Credit Union Affiliates of New Jersey President Tom Shaugnessey, who was using the league's coffers as his personal checkbook. I know what I'd like to see on something like this, but let's be real--lawyers rule the day on these announcements. In this litigious era, it's dangerous, dangerous ground, no matter how solid the case. Best advice here is to have someone designated to field questions from the press, with an understanding of what they can and can't say. I always favored seeing someone near the top as the spokesperson, such as a chairman or executive vice president. It gives more confidence to the outside world.
Making a leadership change soon? Pull away from the myopic, internal view, and consider how you want the members to view the change. --Comments? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org