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How To Retire Gracefully

The way in which officers move on from their leadership roles can affect the group even after they're gone. Make your transition a positive one.
by Christy Forhan

For many parent groups, late spring is a time of transition. The election of new officers can bring new energy and excitement, new ideas, and new challenges. But what about the people who have served the group faithfully, some for years, who are now giving up their offices?

If you are a retiring officer, this can be a time of uncertainty. Before your term of service comes to a close, ask yourself: “What kind of ex-officer will I be?” Maybe you have not really considered this phase of your service. After all, in a few weeks this will be someone else’s job. But how you interact with the group after you leave office can have a significant effect on the organization.

There are different reasons you would leave the executive board, and the circumstances can influence your future impact on the group, for better or worse. If you really love your position but term limits require you to pass the baton, then you might become the officer who Can’t Let Go. Sometimes, a contentious election puts you on the outside. If you are leaving the board with bitterness, you might become the Thorn in the Side. Perhaps your child is moving from elementary to middle school or your family is relocating out of the district. Maybe you’re just looking for a change. Or maybe you’re on the verge of volunteer burnout. You might be the officer who Fled the Scene.

None of these characterizations is particularly flattering or advantageous to the mission of the PTO. So what is the ideal situation for an ex-officer or the former chair of a major committee? With some advance planning and restraint, you can be the Resource On Call who has positive influence on the organization even after your name is off the door.

Most of us volunteer at our children’s school because we feel good contributing to its success. Our children appreciate our presence and are proud to see us on campus. We want to be a part of the action. So it’s understandable that the transition from PTO leader to PTO member can sometimes leave us feeling under-appreciated or disconnected. If you are an ex-officer or soon to become one, consider these warning signs before it’s too late.

Can’t Let Go

The officer who Can’t Let Go continues to influence the detailed operations of the PTO even after her term is over. She doesn’t discourage others from asking her advice on PTO matters. She has a comment about every PTO action. Can’t Let Go welcomes the attention and will send subtle signals that she is still in charge. This ex-officer might continue to nurture her working relationship with the principal, even though she is no longer the official representative of the PTO.

Can’t Let Go speaks up at PTO meetings with the dreaded words “That’s not how we do it....” In extreme cases, Can’t Let Go might even polarize the PTO, which can lead to destructive tension in the group.

Warning signs:

  • Members still call you with questions about PTO operations.
  • The principal still treats you as if you are an active officer.
  • You have something to say about every item on the PTO meeting agenda.
  • You still have a file for the position in your home or, worse yet, in your car.

Thorn in the Side

When a happy officer is forced to give up her position, she may retaliate by becoming a Thorn in the Side of the new board. This response may not be intentional; the Thorn might really believe she is contributing in a positive way. Unfortunately, bitterness can taint the Thorn’s attitude and spoil good intentions.

The officer who becomes a Thorn probably has significant experience to share but cannot set aside hurt feelings or petty jealousy. She may take on a new leadership role in the PTO with a confrontational posture, or she may sit on the sidelines, making snide remarks about the current leaders. Either way, Thorn in the Side can undermine the efforts of the group.

Warning signs:

  • You notice a collective cringing when you raise your hand at a PTO meeting.
  • You hear yourself gossiping about the new board.
  • You initiate repeated, unnecessary phone calls to your successor with “advice.”
  • The new officers avoid eye contact with you.

Fled the Scene

Your experience as an officer is important to the continued success of the parent group. You know how things have been done in the past. You remember what worked and what did not and, hopefully, why. You were part of the decision-making process that planned this year’s activities. You helped solve problems and avoid controversy.

Your on-the-job knowledge can make a dramatic impact on your successor’s success. Unfortunately, the daily demands of the position can drain a leader’s energy to the point of burnout. Fled the Scene is tired of the phone calls and the burden of recruiting volunteers for myriad events. She no longer feels passionate about the mission of the group. She’s ready to check out and let someone else take over.

Sometimes members are confused when a super-volunteer decides to slow down. “She’s always been so active and reliable. I wonder what happened?” someone might ask. “Is something wrong with the PTO? If she’s not involved anymore, who knows what’s going on?”

Fled the Scene may not realize the larger impact she has on the PTO. Members might misinterpret her decline in involvement as a sign of decay in the group. In extreme cases, Fled the Scene inadvertently pulls others away from the group, too. She never looks back, abandoning the PTO to inexperienced leaders who must start from scratch.

Warning signs:

  • You haven’t attended a meeting or talked to anyone about the PTO since you left office.
  • You purged all PTO-related files and email addresses from your computer.
  • You don’t return phone calls from your successor.
  • Any notices you receive about fundraising or PTO volunteering go straight into the trash.
  • The school secretary has forgotten your name.

Resource On Call

As an officer who is retiring, your goal should be to make a graceful exit from the executive board while continuing to support the group with your unique experience. Resource On Call successfully backs out of the spotlight, trains her replacement, and makes herself available as needed. She is a welcomed advisor to the new executive board.

One of the biggest challenges a PTO faces is continuity of quality, because members are always moving into and out of the group as their children grow through the school. Procedures are rarely documented. Training is haphazard. Files are often lost in a cluttered basement. The good work of the PTO is delayed while old ideas are reinvented.

Resource On Call recognizes that challenge and takes action to share her knowledge in a useful and non-confrontational way.

If you are going to be leaving office at the end of the school year, there is still time for you to become a Resource On Call. Document your approach and procedures and then really train your successor. For example, if you are president, write down information on how you ran meetings and how often you met with the board, advice on working with the principal, procedures for securing meeting space, how you recruited committee chairs, what worked and what did not.

Spend time going through your files, section by section, face to face with your successor. The new officer might want to try something new next year. But if you write down your methods, at least she will know why you did what you did, what approach is comfortable and familiar to your members, and what mistakes to avoid in the future. Your efforts will enhance consistency and quality.

Independent parent groups are not bound to a particular set of procedures, so you will need to take the time to document them for your own group’s benefit. No one else is going to do it for you. If you are reluctant to commit the time to training the next officer, think back to how valuable really good training would have been for you when you took over the job.

Characteristics:

  • Your successor initiates calls to you, not the other way around.
  • When asked operational questions, you politely direct members to your successor.
  • You cleaned out and organized your officer files, including computer files, before you handed them over.
  • You planned for the transition and had more than one training meeting with your successor.
  • You send your successor non-confrontational “heads up” messages if appropriate.
  • You still attend PTO meetings.
  • You volunteer to chair a PTO committee.
  • If your successor is really doing something wrong, you contact her discretely.
  • The principal still says hello, but doesn’t engage you in board-level discussions.

Happy Trails

As you retire, think about the role you would like to play in your parent group. Could you be guilty of becoming Can’t Let Go, Thorn in the Side, or even Fled the Scene? Remember the value you represent to your group and, ultimately, to the children of your school. Being an active “ex-officer” can sometimes feel awkward. But you still have much to contribute to the success of the school, even after you have moved out of a leadership role.

 

Comments   

#4 D 2009-06-14 13:16
What is the best way to deal with past president who cannot let go? She definitely did do fabulous things for the school, albeit by using her great wealth, power and influence (that the rest of us do not have). She now expects everyone to give in to her every desire, including staying on our site based shared decision making committee where she already had a turn and new moms want to participate. Help! How does one "put her in her place" politely without offending?
#3 Craig Bystrynski from PTO Today 2008-10-30 16:22
Brenda -- Yes, there are set limits, but they differ from group to group. Your bylaws spell out board positions, term limits, and other rules that govern your PTO. -- Craig
#2 Brenda 2008-10-30 15:05
I'm coming from a school who had a PTA, in which board positions were for two years. Our new school is a PTO. Are there set terms for board members or does the board make up their own term limits?
#1 Louise in ND 2008-03-04 17:16
Transition isn't easy in any group. This article applies to some of my church jobs, too!

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