Shaping your last 100 days as a chief executive

Much has been written about the chief executive’s first 100 days in the role, but there’s a distinct gap in research and practical advice about their last 100 days. Good endings are undoubtedly just as important as beginnings because a successful exit can pave the way for a new start and build individual and organisational self-esteem, wellbeing, and success.

Bayes Centre for Charity Effectiveness (CCE) consultants Fiona Ash and Caroline Copeman carried out a study earlier this year to fill this gap by looking at the available literature about this important period and by speaking to current and former chief executives. Through their interviews and analyses, Ms Ash and Ms Copeman have developed an online resource to support those navigating their own transition from the role.

Their interviewees include chief executives still working through their notice period as well as others who recently left and can reflect back. To get a detailed picture of chief executive exits, Ms Ash and Ms Copeman’s interviews spanned organisations from a range of different sectors and sizes and at different stages of their lifecycle.

A chief executive’s last 100 days can be complex and messy and are a time of risk and uncertainty. Relationships can falter and momentum can be lost. Careful thought and preparation are needed to avoid damaging the legacy of the departing leader.

A key driver in shaping one’s legacy as a departing chief executive is about leaving the organisation in as good a place as possible. Departing chief executives will want to feel pride in their achievements while also wanting the organisation to thrive.

Most of those who took part in the study had made the decision to leave when they had achieved what they had set out to do. For many leaders, this point came midway through the delivery of the current strategy, which several interviewees felt provided a stable point of entry for the incoming chief executive.

Leaving the organisation in a successful place makes decisions for the outgoing chief executive about what to action and what to leave easier. Many reported they focused on ‘clearing the decks’ of anything outstanding or focusing on matters that would be challenging for the new chief executive. One leader wrote the Annual Report before leaving but chose not to start any new major project.

The Chief executive’s last 100 last days resource suggests leaders should communicate their departure carefully and thoughtfully to avoid generating a loss of trust or confidence in the organisation externally. Developing a transition plan which is owned by the board and senior team is a key part of this transition. The plan should set out how to inform key stakeholder groups about the upcoming leadership changes while also providing reassurance that all is well and that there will be no loss of continuity.

Chief executives should also prepare for a shift in mindset, learning to lead in a different way to help the Board and senior team prepare for the upcoming change and supporting them in taking on whatever is needed through a careful handover.

The resource suggests chief executives develop a countdown plan of what they plan to achieve during their notice period to maintain confidence that things are under control and preparations for the transition are in place.

Being intentional during their departure is vital for chief executives in shaping their legacy. A leader’s tone, behaviour and actions in their final 100 days– including how they speak about the organisation and their new role if leaving to join another– will be just as carefully scrutinised as the first 100 days of the successor.

Fiona Ash has been a Consultant at CCE since 2006 and a Visiting Fellow at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), and service lead for the CCE governance practice team. She has authored a number of CCE publications including the Lived Experience on Nonprofit Boards resource, the Tools for Success and Building Better Governance guides. She authored The chief executive’s first 100 days resource.

Caroline Copeman is a Senior Visiting Fellow at Bayes and has worked with CCE for 16 years. Caroline has previously taught on the charities master’s programmes and a number of CCE’s leadership development programmes. She has authored multiple CCE resources, including the Lived Experience on Nonprofit Boards resource as well as the Tools for Success and Building Better Governance guides.