GUT CHECK: Have You Reached Your Best-Before Date?

April 25, 2014 Vince Molinaro

Imagine, you’re about to sit down and enjoy a cold glass of milk with some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. The aroma is filling your home.

You open your fridge and take out a jug of milk, open the top and you are immediately hit with a nasty smell that turns your stomach. A quick check of the label and you realize it’s two weeks past the best-before date.

What I’ve found is the same thing can happen with leaders. There are those, like that nasty jug of milk, that stay in their leadership roles way past their best-before date, often with bad results.

I thought about this analogy recently when I read about General Electric’s CEO Jeff Immelt, who after thirteen years into his 20-year term as CEO, has signaled he’ll be leaving the global conglomerate earlier than expected.

In early April, the Wall Street Journal reported that Immelt has led several board discussions about leaving sometime in the next couple of years. Moreover, that he is recommending the next CEO receive tenure of between 10 and 15 years.

Why give up a job leading one of the largest and most iconic companies in the world? GE has not performed well under Immelt’s tenure, with share prices dropping by more than one third since he took over in 2001.

However, Company insiders told the WSJ that Immelt is simply acknowledging the reality that perhaps nobody should be CEO for two decades.

“Everybody accepts the fact that this job is impossibly hard,” a company source told the Journal. “To maintain the energy that’s required for these jobs that are so broad and deep, 20 years is a really long time.” And during that time, a leader will easily pass their best-before date.

In the end, regardless of how long Immelt actually serves, I believe the most important feature of this story is that, in an era of increasingly shorter CEO tenures, Immelt was leading the discussion about his future. In other words, he wasn’t sitting around waiting for someone else to bring it up or being forced out by the board.

I find far too many long-serving leaders avoid assessing their own performance, and are therefore among the last to realize that a change needs to be made. They wait until they pass their best-before date and in the end, they don’t leave on their own terms. They’re often pushed from their perches and usually in humiliating fashion.

Consider the departure of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who led the tech giant for just over 14 years. Speculation about a campaign to oust him started years before he actually left. In the wake of his official departure in February 2014, numerous stories circulated with tales of how Microsoft’s board hustled the iconic chief executive out the door. Things got nasty.

Take a moment to reflect on your own leadership role. How would you assess your own performance?

This week’s Gut Check asks: Have you reached your best-before date?

If you have, then it’s time to take things in your own hands. Don’t wait to be forced out. Consider your obligation to your organization.

Follow me @VinceMolinaro

About the Author

Vince Molinaro

Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.

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GUT CHECK: Have You Reached Your Best-Before Date?
GUT CHECK: Have You Reached Your Best-Before Date?

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