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Nicole Brown: Lessons in leading and leaving

Nicole Brown: Lessons in leading and leaving

Resigning, recruiting and handing over to a successor

Image above: Three leaders of Robogals: Founder Marita Cheng, Nicole Brown and new CEO, Ami Pasricha

In the first of a series of three articles, 2015 Queen’s Young Leader, Nicole Brown talks about the experience of stepping down from a leadership role – and tells Leading Change what the experience has taught her.

As I write this, I have exactly 17 days left as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Robogals Global, and I can honestly say my emotions are mixed.

I know it is the right time for me to step down – and the right time for the organisation – but I still long to contribute.

I started as the CEO in January 2013. Robogals had begun at the University of Melbourne, Australia, in 2008. By 2013, we existed in four countries and 17 cities around the world. Today we are in 12 countries and 33 cities.

The rapid growth was exciting but required much iteration in structure and governance, and an increase in volunteers to support these changes.

Running a global organisation is not easy, but – while I was fighting the “impostor syndrome” – I could not be prouder of what I have achieved.

However, in December 2015 I realised I lacked the energy I had once had to lead this organisation. I would be completing the final year of my masters in Structural Engineering in 2016 so my workload would be increasing. And I was excited about entering the workforce a year later.

But more than that, an organisation like Robogals needs a change of leadership every few years to ensure new views, ideas and energy are brought to the role.

Stepping down at the completion of my degree would not only be best for myself, but also the best step for the organisation.

Announcing the decision

After I had made the decision, I shared it with my team.

It was quite challenging to say it aloud, but they were very understanding and supportive. They knew that I put my heart and soul into the organisation and that when I graduated it would be time for me to hand over.

Then, due to the timing, I announced it to the North American region on 16 January 2016 at our regional conference.

This was a very difficult moment for me. For the first time, it became real. I knew it was the right choice, but at that moment I broke down. I realised how much the time with Robogals had meant to me and how much I love this organisation and the people I work with.

school girls build machines

I then announced it at our conference in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region in February 2016, and on our internal Facebook network in the form of a video for all our volunteers on 1 March.

Both times I managed to hold it together better than I did in North America, but it was a struggle! 

The recruitment process

The People Subcommittee of our Board of Directors led our recruitment process.

First they developed a detailed role, or job, description including:

  • key accountabilities
  • the level of commitment required
  • the scope of management processes
  • and key deliverables.

They also set out a four-stage interview process that involved: 

  • a phone interview with all candidates from a human resources specialist
  • a second interview with the People Subcommittee
  • shortlisted candidates presenting to the Board of Directors
  • and finally the preferred candidate presenting to the Leadership Team of Robogals.

The entire process took approximately three months and the level of detail provided in the role description drew a high calibre of applicants – including our successful applicant, Ami Pasricha.  

Handing over

Once the new CEO was selected in mid-September, it was time to start the transition process.

Yes, I had been working on documenting key pieces of knowledge all year, but how was it even possible to hand over four years of knowledge to someone?

Then I realised –I didn’t have to. What I needed to do was:

  • summarise the key decisions that had been made to bring the organisation to where it is today
  • provide overviews and introductions to all the teams and projects of Robogals
  • and support the development of an action plan for 2017.

Now this may seem like a lot – and it was – but when it was broken down it became less daunting.

  • Firstly, I spoke with the People Committee and developed a list of their expectations to hand over.
  • Secondly, I collated a list of key people whom Ami would need to meet.
  • Thirdly, I completed the list of all handover “topics” which needed to be discussed.
  • Finally I created a handover calendar where, I listed all the meetings I had, so a shadowing process could take place.

I themed each week with what the focus was going to be and I made sure to include all the points that we needed to go through. Once it was in calendar form all we needed to do was follow it!

We organised at least one meeting a week while we were going through the final weeks of our degrees – and then at least one day a week for the next six to ensure we covered all bases.

Each meeting was extremely productive as we followed the calendar, which I was quite proud of as I tend to go off topic quite easily! 

A large group of people all wearing Robogals t-shirts

The final days on the job

As I think about these last 17 days, there are still a few actions needing to be completed, but really, my job is done.

If the past four years have taught me anything, it is to believe in yourself.

No matter what life throws at you – whatever misfortunes or fantastic opportunities arise – embrace them.

Challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone and be proud of who you are and proud of what you have achieved. Be proud of your mistakes because this means you have recognised them and learnt from them.

Be proud of your ability to lead.

Read Nicole Brown: Life after leadership

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