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Leadership: When to Say Good-Bye

Tens of millions of Baby Boomers will be retiring over the next decade. Organizations are working diligently to plan for their replacements as leaders as well as hiring new recruits to fill new positions that open up due to succession plans. Boomers themselves are executing final plans about their own leaving. Financial planning aside not enough attention is paid to exits of senior leaders. One man serves as an example about how and when to leave.

Tens of millions of Baby Boomers will be retiring over the next decade. Organizations are working diligently to plan for their replacements as leaders as well as hiring new recruits to fill new positions that open up due to succession plans. Boomers themselves are executing final plans about their own leaving. Financial planning aside not enough attention is paid to exits of senior leaders. One man serves as an example about how and when to leave. He is Lloyd Carr, who is retiring after 13 seasons as the head football coach at the University of Michigan.

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At the press conference announcing his leaving, Carr joked, “I’m not tired. I may look tired.” Then he turned serious. “But, I still have a great passion for the game, for the players and for the competition. But I also know that there are some things that I don’t have anymore, and so it’s time.” That in a nutshell sums up what leaders must consider when they take their leave: know what you can do as well as what you cannot do any longer.

Being the head football coach at a major collegiate program is a grueling occupation that devours time, energy and resources. There is always the pressure of winning and winning repeatedly. Toward that end, coaches spend long months identifying and recruiting players with the talent and skills to succeed in their program. There is always, certainly at schools like Michigan, the expectation to “win with integrity” and so coaches and players need to live by the standards that the university expects for academics and athletics but also for personal conduct. Higher than the standards perhaps are the expectations of the program and its supporters; they expect conference championships and even national championships – every year.

Carr’s leaving teaches us three important lessons about retiring.

Be a leader. Carr frames stepping down as a matter of succession. “I think one of the most important things a leader can do is know when it’s time to let somebody else to lead.” He added, “That’s the right thing to do. Because it’s a hard job.” Make no mistake Carr has spoken often of how much he enjoys coaching, especially the preparation that goes into molding a game plan and then putting players on the field to execute it. But sooner or later, leaders must put the passion aside for the greater good. That’s what Carr means by saying it is time for him.

Think legacy. Carr leaves with a 75% winning percentage, among the highest of all active football coaches. His team won five Big Ten titles and one National Championship. More importantly, for coaches like Carr, he has left a legacy of boys becoming men. His players love him as he loved them. Some like Tom Brady have become successes in the NFL. The vast majority, however, never played football again yet they got their degrees and got on with their lives as employees, parents and contributors to their communities. To a player, especially those Lloyd has disciplined over the years, attest to his ability to mold character by holding them accountable to their team, their University and themselves.

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Have a life. Lloyd considers himself fortunate to have his health, his family, and many friends. He also has a number of outside interests. As coach he has been active in the Ann Arbor community, in particular helping to fundraise for a new children’s hospital. He also established an endowed scholarship for women athletes. He will remain at the University with a position in the athletic department. For as all-consuming as coaching can be, Carr never let it consume him.

One final lesson that we can gain from Carr’s exit is this: do not expect fairy tale endings. It is often said that coaches are hired to be fired and so many coaches do not leave of their own choosing: they are forced out. No one at the University of Michigan asked Lloyd to resign; he chose his own exit. That said, Carr’s final season was a disappointment. The team lost its first two games and its last two.

The poetic ending would have been for Carr to be carried off the field by his players after beating arch-rival Ohio State in the Big House. Instead with head held high and eyes in front, Carr walked off the field with his team after the loss. That disappointing ending, however, did not deter Lloyd from doing what he believed to be the right thing: to leave now as planned. A more egotistical coach would have pushed back the retirement for another year to get another shot at the Buckeyes. But that’s not Carr’s way; he left the game as he said in his retirement press conference: “[N]obody is more thankful than me. This is the right time for Michigan and the right time for me.”

Sources:“Michigan coach leaves with 121 wins, 5 Big Ten Titles” Associated Press 11.19.07
Bob Wojnowski et al “Carr: ‘This is the right time.’” Detroit News 11.19.07

John Baldoni • Leadership Expert: Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • www.johnbaldoni.com

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