Is It Time To Pass the Gavel?

Questions to ask yourself if you’re thinking about retiring from your PTO leadership role.

by Rita Milios


No matter how much you enjoy your role in your PTO, eventually the time will come when you think about retiring. All leaders at some point step aside and someone new takes over. How will you know whether the time has come to pass the gavel? It might be helpful to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Why did I initially assume leadership?

  • Are those reasons still important?

  • What has changed to make me question my commitment and enthusiasm?

  • Under what conditions could I regain my commitment and enthusiasm?

Why Did You Become a Leader?

You probably got involved because you felt you could make a positive impact on a cause that’s important to you. As president of a PTO, you’re in a position to shape the values and goals of an organization that directly influences the lives of your children and the children in your community. You might have been drawn to the mission of the group and assumed the role of leader to help further that mission.

Perhaps you looked forward to the chance to lead a group and oversee projects. By taking on the presidency of a parent group, you gained an opportunity to develop valuable leadership, communication, and organizational skills that can be useful in other areas of your life. Presiding over an organization of this sort also provides a sense of empowerment and success that can be very rewarding.

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Are Those Reasons Still Important?

It’s possible that despite the rewards, you’ve moved beyond your original goals. Perhaps the mission of the organization or even your personal mission has changed. Perhaps you’ve gained the particular skills and experience you sought and are no longer feeling challenged. When any of these circumstances occur, it’s a good time to reassess and reprioritize your activities.

You don’t need to feel guilty about “abandoning” your mission (although such feelings are certainly common when a person has devoted a great deal of time, energy, and passion to a cause). Instead, recognize that you might have already given the group your best. By staying on, you might in fact be blocking another equally qualified person from gaining an opportunity to lead. Be proud of your past accomplishments, but embrace your new future if you decide to move on.

What Else Has Changed?

Joan, a PTO president for the past four years, provides a good example of someone who’s considering whether it might be time to step down.

When Joan first took on her current leadership role, she was excited about exploring new opportunities and expanding her personal horizons as well as the horizons of the PTO. As she worked with the board and her committee members to develop strategies to increase membership, increase the effectiveness of fundraising events, and enhance communication between the PTO and school administrators, Joan took pride in the level of cooperation and sense of camaraderie that her group possessed.

Recently, however, some of the longtime committee members have stepped down and the school has acquired a new principal. Joan finds herself feeling somewhat uncomfortable with these new players and wistfully recalling “the old days.” Over the past year, Joan also has experienced a number of changes in her personal life. She’s been thinking about taking on a part-time job to supplement her family’s income. Now she’s wondering: Can I continue to fulfill my obligations to the PTO while also holding down a part-time job? Will I have the time and energy for both?

Joan is correct in recognizing that her personal life changes might be a factor in her ability to be an effective PTO president. Life changes such as these are among the main reasons volunteer leaders decide to retire.

If, like Joan, you’re weighing the pros and cons of retiring from a leadership role, the following steps can help you make a decision.

  • Evaluate the recognition and rewards gained from holding your position. Decide whether they currently provide enough incentive.

  • Review your own level of commitment. Honestly evaluate whether you can sustain your current level of involvement.

  • If you feel that you’ve been taking on too much responsibility, it might be time to give others larger roles. Begin sharing responsibilities with trusted and committed members. Encourage newer members and those who haven’t yet served on committees to become more involved at this level.

  • Analyze any reservations you might have about leaving. If you’re worried about disappointing others, discuss this with them. You might be surprised to learn that they support your decision to address other areas of your life and that they look forward to taking a more active role in the PTO themselves.

  • Most of all, if you’re no longer having fun, then you know something needs to change. Does your entire organization need a new challenge? Consider mixing in some new projects. Maybe it’s outreach to parents who don’t speak English, a math tutoring program, or a book club where parents and students read and discuss the selection together. There are many possibilities; it’s up to you and your fellow leaders to decide what works for your group.

Can You Get Reenergized?

Even once the enthusiasm for and challenge of a leadership role have begun to wane, it’s still possible to renew your energy and restore your commitment. But first you must take stock of your situation and honestly evaluate your needs and motivations. Are you still an effective leader? Or has the situation or your attitude changed enough that your ability to serve as well as you’d like has been compromised?

Be radically honest with yourself and ask for the opinions of a few trusted members. Ask for specific suggestions about how you can improve the organization’s effectiveness and how your leadership skills can be enhanced. Take action to make any needed corrections. Evaluate whether you’re willing and able to carry them out. If you aren’t, then you know it’s time to allow someone else to take on these challenges.

If, after an honest and thorough evaluation, you decide to stay on as president of your PTO, you might need to revitalize your leadership image. As president, you’re responsible for setting an example for others regarding how to accommodate change and how to keep it from affecting your ability to lead.

If you had an honest discussion with key members about your possible retirement, you now need to outline for them the reasons you decided to remain in the leadership role so they can be reassured of your continued commitment to the organization. Mention any specific projects that you’re excited about, and allow your enthusiasm to reenergize their commitment, as well.

Stepping down and passing the gavel will be inevitable at some point. By honestly weighing your options and sorting out your priorities, you can make the best decision for all concerned and make your final act of leadership a transition that occurs with style and grace.

Originally posted in 2009 and updated regularly.

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