Predicting the CEO Departure


An early indicator of when a leader may soon be leaving their organization is often their very own statement that they are not stepping down. This week Volkswagen’s Chief Executive Martin Winterkorn posted a video apologizing for his company’s actions related to fraudulent emissions reporting. He went a step too far when he said he would not step down. Fast forward to the next day when he was ousted.

Mr. Winterkorn isn’t the only one offering this self-assured proclamation of future employment. You may recall news in the spring related to FIFA’s scandal. Sepp Blatter repeatedly said he would not step down as the head of FIFA only to do so days later. Next, after it was discovered that personal information of 22 million government employees was hacked, Katherine Arculetta, the Director of Personnel Management, stated that she would not step down. The next day, she announced her departure. These are just a few.

Amid a crisis, leaders boldly say that they won’t step down in order to reinforce stability to their customers, investors, employees and other stakeholders. Or maybe it’s to give themselves this sense of stability and imply “If I say it, it must be true.” As we have seen, this can be presumptuous and may be perceived as arrogant. In hindsight, ignorant.  

When things aren’t going well, leaders should steer clear of the ill-advised declaration of not stepping down. The track record of this comment doesn’t bode well for the person saying it.

Instead, focus on the issue at hand - the crisis that’s happening now. Don’t speculate on your own fate too soon. Leaders in government, business and non-profits need to lead through a crisis and work closely with their boards and bosses and defer any answer to “Are you stepping down?” until the time is appropriate, the facts are in and there is a path to a resolution. All of these things generally cannot happen within the first few days of a crisis.

If you insist on saying that you aren’t stepping down, run it by the people who may tell you otherwise. Wait until the smoke has cleared, the dust has settled and others have the confidence in your leadership role.

Melissa F Daly has 20 years of financial communications experience, with a special focus on key message development and media relations around critical issues. Melissa formed MFD Communications after spending three years at Goldman Sachs as Vice President, Corporate Communications. At Goldman, Melissa focused on raising the profile of the its Asset Management and Private Wealth divisions, as well as the firm’s political activities. Prior to that, she was a Director at Brunswick Group, a London-based financial and strategic communications firm. There, she spearheaded its financial services business in the US, managing communications for hedge fund, private equity, insurance and traditional asset management firms. Melissa also worked at Fred Alger Management, The Hartford and Lipper in senior communications and media relations roles and has frequently appeared on CNBC and CNN as an industry commentator. Her experience spans across business sectors and continents.