Do I let go of an executive before a replacement is hired?

This question came to us recently from a CEO in the arena.  We are sharing our response publicly for the benefit of other CEOs.  All identifiable information has been changed.


Last week I got a call from a CEO who had concluded the time was right to move on from a senior exec who wasn’t delivering the goods.  The question she asked was, “Should I let go of this person before a replacement is hired?”

To be clear, replacing a member of your leadership team is one of the most difficult operating situations facing a CEO and it’s hard to describe to non-CEOs.

Once you’ve come to the decision to make a leadership change, move quickly.

It is emotionally gut-wrenching as you replay in your mind why the failure occurred, what does this mean about you as a leader, how the team will operate during the transition and how do you not make the same mistake with the next hire.

And, yes, while this may feel like a true “lose-lose” decision – tolerating an underperforming leader for many more months or having a leadership void during that period – as my colleague Jonathan recently wrote, it won’t get any easier with time. 

Once you’ve come to the decision to make a leadership change, move quickly.  It’s better to have no leader at all than a “caretaker” presence, even if it means leaving that chair empty for several months.  There are three primary reasons.

First off, if you’ve finally made the decision to make a change, chances are your team and / or your board probably saw the signs way earlier meaning that this change is overdue.  

Moving swiftly signals to your “A” players (a term I hate) that you don’t have a blind spot to what’s going on in the organization and you don’t tolerate underperformance.  That’s why I’ve never heard a CEO say that she “moved too quickly” after removing a leader. 

Next, nothing creates the urgency to find a replacement more than a vacated seat.  

With all of the fire drills going on in a growing organization, sometimes you can be lulled into complacency by having a competent – albeit ineffective leader – in chair.  Focusing on the search “in a few hours” becomes “first thing tomorrow” and “later this week” becomes “next week”.  All you are doing is postponing the desired change you seek and calcifying the culture of a soon to be departing executive.

Finally, you don’t have as good a poker face as you think.  

Once you’ve summited the emotional mountain to make the decision, every interaction with that person will change. You will be more attuned to the traits that drove your desire to make a change, your patience will shorten when you see them in action, and you will find yourself unaccustomedly losing your cool. The senior leader will probably sense a shift in the dynamic and may – to use a hockey metaphor for an underperforming player – start “gripping the stick too tight” making their behavior – and matters – only worse.  It won’t be a shining moment for either of you. 

Leadership changes are inevitable, particularly in fast growing businesses. Move swiftly and deliberately after you’ve thoughtfully made the decision and maintain the humanity of everyone in the process.

John Tedesco
John Tedesco
John is a 4x CEO and a founding member of the Arena Partners team.