“I was the CEO. Now I am nobody.”

During a recent talk we held in our community of practice in leadership development and career acceleration for exceptional women THE CEO ELEVATION CIRCLE a colleague shared that in 2023 she decided to step down as CEO. “It didn’t feel right anymore. Stepping down was the right thing to do. And yet, afterwards, I couldn’t stop this feeling – yesterday I was the CEO. Now I am nobody. That was not an easy transition.”

Leaving your CEO role is never easy. When you depart your role because of your own choice, at least you get the grace of preparing yourself mentally and emotionally for the departure. But what happens when you get laid off – even though on the surface your firing is sold as a departure for personal reasons etc.? How do you handle the emotional turmoil then?

WHY DO WE FEEL SO MUCH PAIN IN THE FIRST PLACE?   

I remember precisely the first days of May 2010, when I got laid off from the Czech Business Weekly after its abrupt closure.

Before that, I could pick up the phone and call the office of the president of the country. I had that right; it was given to me by my role – the deputy editor in chief of the only English language business weekly on the Czech market. If you wanted to mean something in the Czech business world, if you wanted to be visible abroad – your name needed to become visible in our paper. That gave us a lot of leverage – and a lot of power.

I admit it – the taste of power was sweet. This is why it hurt so badly when we were stripped away of it over night and thrown in the street like… we have never existed.

Struggling with the question: “I was X, now I am nobody. What next?” is absolutely normal under such circumstances. The pain, the guilt, the anger, the need to blame and find scapegoats, the grief… they are all part of a process. Paradoxically, these emotions pop up even when you are the one who decided to leave, which will make you question your decision. Be as it may, they are all normal and there is nothing wrong with you if you feel them.

The good thing about emotions is that they are fleeting. They come, bring us some information from the underworld – our unconscious mind – then they leave. So what we need to do is to take a look at what’s left in their aftermath.

HOW TO BECOME A SOMEBODY AGAIN? 

In both cases – departing the CEO role of your own accord or through being laid off – I hope you did and do have a proper reputation management plan in place.

I know that you are exhausted and, honestly, without your internal communications team on your side, perhaps also a bit scared and lost. But reputation management is your main job now. From being the CEO of your company now you need to shift into being the CEO of your own life, and the first most burning thing asking for your attention is your reputation.

You will never be able to stop the speculations that will inevitably come surrounding your departure. But there are a few important things that you can do – and you should do – to lead the story and create the buffer of goodwill that will secure you your next lucrative job (and, honestly, your dignity and peace of mind, too).

5 STEPS TO MANAGE YOUR REPUTATION AFTER LEAVING YOUR CEO ROLE 

Let’s take a look at the most important steps you should take to manage your (former) CEO reputation.

 

  1. PROTECT YOURSELF FROM THE START

What is the message that your shareholder council is ready to share in relation to your departure? Is that message favorable to you – or, at least, neutral? How can you leverage that message to build a positive story around your departure? Do your have an iron-clad NDA preventing your shareholders to blab about your departure? If you don’t have any of this, this is where you should start.

 

  1. TAKE CHARGE OF COMMUNICATIONS

Once the message from your shareholders is clear – and, hopefully, positive for you – you need to get in charge of the communication timeline. Agree with your shareholder council and the company communications team how communication will unfold – to your executive team, to the whole employee database, to clients and business partners, to the outer world. Make sure the message and the timeline is in your favor as much as possible – aka that you are not muzzled mindlessly while the world speculates on what happened to you.

 

  1. BE PERSONAL

Once you have a clear communications timeline, pick up the phone. You might not need to call everyone, but leaving a personal voice or video message to your key partners – colleagues, clients, business associates, even media representatives – can make a world of a difference. Tell them your version of the story and give them a timeline on what will happen next. If you want, invite them for a coffee or lunch. Be personal without being oversharing. Equally, stay on message even when they probe into your words, and stay dignified. No one feels comfortable in the presence of a CEO ready to trash their former company and colleagues.

 

  1. ACTIVATE ALLIES

The next thing you should do when you engage in this tour de force of personal communication is to ask for your potential allies to stay in your corner. You can tell them: “Look, I know what happened, but I am concerned about the external perception and that it might come to harm me down the road if we don’t do something about it now. Can I ask you a favor? Now you know what happened. If someone asks you about me, can I rely on you to convey them that…?” There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for a favor. This is how you activate strategic allyships – and trust me, now you need your allies more than ever before.

 

  1. LEVERAGE THOUGHT LEADERSHIP TO NAVIGATE YOUR TRANSITION

Last but not least, take charge of your communications on social media. Become crystal clear on how you will communicate and why. Take to LinkedIn and create a post about your departure. Frame it correctly and infuse it with gratitude. Sprinkle it with a dash of data on your achievements during the role. Then tell people what they can expect from you next. You can share the key topics of communication that you would like to nurture moving forward, or the ideas you want to discuss with people on social media. You can share a vision that you want people to engage with. Just be mindful of making promises you can’t keep, or of coming across as hiddenly threatening to your former employer. From now on you are on your own. Let the past in the past, but do recycle the stories that can inspire others and inform your future next move.

 

Departing from a CEO role is never easy. The mix of emotions can be overwhelming for women and men CEOs alike. But the most important part of managing this transition is to understand that the way you master your reputation now will inform others’ perception of you for years to come, and it will drive – or kill – opportunity down the road. Get this one right and your entire future will thank you.

Let's Talk

If you’re a CEO concerned that you might need to depart your organization within the next three months – voluntarily or less so – we should talk. Your reputation, when well-managed, is your trampoline for anything you want for yourself, your career, and your life in the next step. Don’t allow your emotions and mindless market gossip to eat into your future opportunities. Book or have your executive assistant book a free no-strings-attached 30-minute CEO exploration call with me; we will get to know each other and I will be thrilled to spot how to support you in your transition and beyond.
Cristina Muntean
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Let's Talk

If you’re a CEO concerned that you might need to depart your organization within the next three months – voluntarily or less so – we should talk. Your reputation, when well-managed, is your trampoline for anything you want for yourself, your career, and your life in the next step. Don’t allow your emotions and mindless market gossip to eat into your future opportunities. Book or have your executive assistant book a free no-strings-attached 30-minute CEO exploration call with me; we will get to know each other and I will be thrilled to spot how to support you in your transition and beyond.