Spetner: Stepping aside with grace

PRWeek columnist Don Spetner explains why having the wisdom and foresight to transition to a younger generation is a key trait for a leader.

I’ve been following the twilight career stages of two people whom I admire deeply -- Albert Pujols and Diane Feinstein. Each have led lives of towering achievement. Each reached the pinnacle of their profession and earned a revered place in history. But both are now facing criticism for staying too long in their roles, which is sad to witness. By remaining at the dance too long, they not only tarnished their legacy, but they have also delayed a new generation from taking their rightful place at the helm.

I’m an ardent believer in the value of wisdom, knowledge and experience. Much of my own growth has been due to the guidance, patience and support of people much older and wiser, who took the time and showed interest in my development. They served as role models, they helped me grow and mature and, in some cases, they kept me from running off a cliff or smacking into a wall of my own making. So, I have nothing against people staying in positions of influence as they age. 

But there is an art and grace in knowing when to pivot, when to move to an advisory role and when to let new blood ascend to power. When done correctly, this pivot actually enhances one’s reputation and preserves their legacy.

Pujols will undoubtedly be a first-ballot inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This year was the last in his long-term contract with the L.A. Angels. Instead of announcing that he’d retire at the end of the season, Pujols chose to keep the option open that his career might continue. But at 41 years old, he is no longer the player he once was. This season should have been filled with farewell tours, heartfelt tributes and standing ovations, followed by a mentoring or coaching role. Instead, he was unceremoniously dropped from the Angels roster to make room for a younger, better player. 

In the case of Diane Feinstein, instead of stepping back to allow a younger person to take her role in the Senate, she decided to run again in 2018 at the age of 85. To her credit, she was re-elected, but she is now showing signs of diminishment, and is mired in controversy over her lack of visibility and vigor. 

In the business world, there are numerous CEOs who’ve insisted on hanging on to their roles well into their ninth decade, only to face unseemly exits at the hands of their board or shareholders due to diminished capacity. And a refusal to step down often drives out exceptional talent that aspires to be CEO.

My role model on how to best transition from power was Harold Burson, who died last year at age 98. Harold founded and built Burson Marsteller into one of the world’s largest public relations agencies. He sold the agency in 1979 to Young & Rubicam, then stayed on for another 10 years as CEO. At age 68, Harold made the decision to hand over the operating reins, and move to a different, more advisory role. He stepped down as CEO and became founder/chairman, which allowed him to add tremendous value as a counselor to clients, agency management and employees. He became an advocate for our industry, and a mentor and role model to countless professionals who now hold senior communications positions.

It’s not easy to relinquish power, or to recognize that one cannot forever be at the top of their game. May we all have Harold Burson’s grace, wisdom and foresight to find the path toward adding value while holding open the door for the next generation of leaders.

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