When is it Time to Move On?

This is not ‘Nishant’s school.’ I’m a temporary keeper of the flame.

This has been a common refrain of mine since my first year – 2013 – at The Children’s School (TCS). I would bring it up at board meetings, in parent forums, and faculty and staff conversations. No institution or program can risk becoming fully entwined with the identity of any one individual. The same is true for the individual leader. Who I am, and what I do or where I do it are not the same.

I’m fascinated by leadership transitions, and I’ve pondered the question – When will it be time for me to go? – since day one at TCS.

I didn’t start in 2013 with a clear end point for my tenure. I knew, however, that the longer I stayed, the school and I would become synonymous with one another. “Oh, TCS? That’s Nishant’s school.” I committed to myself, and spoke of it openly to my team and our board, that on my departure, I wanted to be just another puzzle piece to be replaced. My legacy would not be dependence but independence.

A couple years ago, I came across an article in “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” written by a college president, Janet Dudley-Eshbach of Salisbury University, on the eve of her resignation from her post. It was titled, “It’s Time for Me to Go.” In it, Janet asks the question that I’ve asked of myself and other school heads:

When is it time to go? When has a college presidency run its course? I’ve always wanted to be sure not to overstay the period in which I can be most productive.

I didn’t want to overstay my welcome or relevance either. Leadership in academia and our schools today is increasingly complex with external and internal forces that shift unpredictably and at an accelerated pace unsustainable for many except our most resilient institutions. Our schools require of the person in my job to be the pastor and the CEO, the teacher-coach and the manager, the gentle soul and the tough talker, the best friend and the aloof leader, the visionary and the operations executive. Under these circumstances and expectations, how is any leader expected to know or forecast when it’s time for them to leave, and leave well and on a high note? The question – When is it time for me to go? – has an easy answer when times are bad or poor. A change could be good or necessary. The answer is almost invisible or fuzzy, however, when times are good. Who’d want to leave, or be asked to leave, when things are going well?

When I asked other heads about their decision timeline or rationale, some common themes emerged:

  • The decision is individual to each person, but as Janet says, “‘You’ll know when it’s time’ – and it turns out they were right.”
  • There’s really no good or perfect time to jump off a moving train.
  • I shouldn’t expect most others to understand it.
  • It’s like timing the stock market. Whatever you choose, you’ll wonder what the future would have held had you done the opposite.
  • You want to leave when they still want you to stay, and you have two more years of good work left in you.
  • There will be those who think you left too early, and there will be others who think you’re leaving too late. Hope that you’re leaving behind a bigger group in the former category.
  • It will feel like an intimate relationship coming to an end.
  • Seven years was the magic number at least four different heads shared with me in separate conversations. It takes seven years for a thoughtful assessment and analysis; build relationships, one’s team and board; advance strategic and master plans, a feasibility study and a capital campaign; and complete any campus construction and renovations. At the end of the seven-year mark, it will be time to either get off or recommit to the same cycle.

Many have wondered or asked why I’m leaving. Because I didn’t have my next job lined up at the time of the announcement, a few wondered if I was unhappy or disgruntled, if I’d been fired or asked to leave. Why would I choose to leave such a great job and city where Neeti and I are home, have friends and colleagues we cherish, and a comfortable life we’ve built over seven years? Or, who in their right mind would make such a decision without knowing the answer to what’s next? None of those assumptions are true. I’m happy and I wasn’t asked to leave. The job is hard; I haven’t worked harder at anything else. It’s also the best job I’ve had.

The decision to leave, when it came to me, was not a single event or epiphany. It was a feeling that started somewhere in my gut and developed over time. There were also markers I had set for what I wanted to leave behind and how I’d calculate or assess my impact. I reframed the question for myself from “When is it time to move on?” to “What do I want to leave behind for my successor?” There’s stuff I’ve built and stuff I’ve probably broken; my legacy, like every other leader’s, isn’t going to be perfect. But my impact will be measured in not just what I did when I was here; it will be measured also by whether I’ve set up my successor for success. A few days ago, one of my administrators asked me about my confidence in the future. I told her I had confidence in the people I’ve hired and who are, like her, leading the programs and people under them. No head of school or CEO should ever become irrelevant to their organization, but an exceptional team can maintain momentum as it leads and initiates the decisions and changes necessary for a confident future. For whatever I’ve built or broken in my seven years, my confidence isn’t simply in what I’m leaving behind, but who my successor will inherit.

Giving up power or authority is not natural to us as a species. Washington didn’t have to step down as president after two terms. He’d have been easily reelected to a third one. His farewell address was written to decline another term in office. Every president since, except FDR during World War II, followed Washington’s example until 1951 when the 22nd Amendment established a two-term limit for presidents. His decision reinforced our republican identity; we wouldn’t be defined by any one person.

I leave TCS after seven years knowing that it stands on its own two feet. My successor will have lots to do, but she won’t be alone. I was never the entire puzzle; I was just one puzzle piece.

Note: Leadership transitions, as I’ve already said many times above, fascinate me. I expect to return to this theme over the next several months. Feel free to leave your questions, comments or feedback, and I will try and incorporate them in future posts.

5 thoughts on “When is it Time to Move On?

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