From CxO to Individual Contributor: A Journey Back to Passion

by Jul 31, 2023

Business Innovation Brief Best Article

In a world dominated by the pursuit of titles, power, and prestige, it’s a rare and commendable decision to step down from a senior executive role to a lesser position. 

The pursuit of personal fulfillment and passion often takes a backseat to the societal pressure to ascend the corporate ladder. 

But what if embracing a “lesser” role is the key to unlocking greater satisfaction, personal growth, and even benefiting the company in new and unexpected ways?

The Choice to Step Down

Senior executives, such as a Chief Revenue Officer (CRO), are at the peak of their career, wielding immense power and influence. However, not all executives find satisfaction in their high-ranking positions. Some may yearn for the days when they were a Client Partner, directly interacting with clients, solving problems, and engaging in the hands-on work they loved.

The decision to step down is not one of failure, but of personal clarity and the courage to align one’s career with their true passions. It’s an acknowledgment that success is not solely defined by a title, but by fulfillment, balance, and joy in one’s work.

Having explored the multifaceted aspects of an executive’s transition to a lesser role, let’s now reflect on what this means for both the individual and the organization.

Challenges and Misunderstandings

For the Executive:

The choice of a senior executive to step into a lesser role is not merely a professional decision but a deeply personal and complex journey. It’s a path laden with multifaceted challenges, ranging from societal perceptions to financial implications and emotional considerations.

Whether it’s the perception of downgrading, concerns about financial adjustments, or the emotional intricacies of leaving a powerful position, each aspect requires careful thought, empathy, and strategic planning.

The following challenges, illustrated with real-life examples and accompanied by practical solutions, shed light on this unique transition.

Perception of Downgrading: Others may view this choice as a step back or a sign of weakness. It takes immense strength to put personal fulfillment over societal expectations.

  • Example: When Howard Schultz stepped down as CEO of Starbucks to focus on the company’s premium offerings, some perceived it as a downgrade. However, Schultz’s transition allowed him to pursue his passion for innovation and specialty coffee.
  • Solution: Educating peers and the public on the motives behind the transition, emphasizing the alignment with personal passion, can help change the perception.

Financial Considerations: Often, a lesser role may mean a reduction in salary, benefits, and perks.

  • Example: Former executives might face a considerable pay cut. Google’s co-founders, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin, when stepping back from their roles, faced financial adjustments.
  • Solution: A detailed financial plan considering the new role’s compensation structure can ease this transition. Communicating the personal value beyond financial gain will also help in accepting this change.

Emotional Transition: Leaving the familiar comforts and authority of a senior position can be emotionally challenging.

  • Example: A senior executive might feel a loss of identity or status after stepping down. For example, John Donahoe, former CEO of eBay, faced emotional challenges when he moved to a lesser role.
  • Solution: Providing coaching and emotional support can assist in navigating this complex emotional landscape. Encouraging connections with mentors or peers who have taken similar paths can be empowering.

Now that we’ve explored why an executive might choose to step down, let’s dig into the complex challenges and misunderstandings that accompany such a decision.

For the Company:

The challenges aren’t confined to the individual; the company must also adapt. Here’s how an organization can thoughtfully respond to a senior leader’s transition.

When a senior leader in an organization chooses to transition into a lesser role, it’s not just the individual who navigates new terrain; the company must adapt as well.

The organizational challenges are nuanced, involving careful adjustments in leadership dynamics, and confronting potential concerns of underutilization of a seasoned executive’s abilities. How a company approaches these challenges reflects its values, adaptability, and vision for the future.

The examples and solutions presented below provide insights into how an organization can thoughtfully support an executive’s choice, aligning both individual passion and organizational goals.

Repositioning a Leader: Adjusting the structure and dynamics of the leadership team can be a complicated process.

  • Example: When Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford, considered moving to a different position within the company, Ford had to think carefully about how to place him without disrupting the existing leadership dynamics.
  • Solution: Having clear guidelines and transparent processes for leadership transitions ensures that repositioning a leader doesn’t become a disruptive force within the organization.

Concerns of Underutilization: There may be fears that the company isn’t leveraging the full potential of an experienced executive.

  • Example: An executive stepping into a lesser role might lead to fears of wasting their expertise. Charles Phillips’ move from President of Oracle to CEO of Infor might have appeared like underutilization but led to significant growth for Infor.
  • Solution: Recognizing that different roles can leverage different aspects of a leader’s skill set, and crafting a role that aligns with both the executive’s passion and the company’s needs, can mitigate concerns about underutilization.

Legal and HR Considerations

Transitioning an executive to a lesser role also demands careful consideration of legal and human resources aspects. Ensuring compliance with employment laws, contractual obligations, and handling the process transparently and fairly to other employees is paramount. 

Collaboration between legal and HR departments can craft a smooth transition that respects all legal and ethical guidelines.

Beyond personal and organizational considerations, legal and HR aspects must be carefully managed.

Potential Risks and Their Mitigation

While there are many advantages to an executive stepping into a lesser role, potential risks should not be overlooked. For the individual, these might include feelings of isolation or disconnect from previous peers.

For the organization, potential internal confusion or external perception issues might arise. 

These risks can be mitigated through clear communication, thoughtful planning, and continued support and engagement throughout the transition.

Making the Transition Possible

The transition from a senior executive role to a lesser position is a delicate process that demands more than mere organizational restructuring.

It calls for a holistic approach that recognizes the human aspect of this change, valuing empathy, understanding, and support.

Success in this transition requires open dialogue, the creation of a tailored role that aligns with the executive’s passions, and robust emotional and practical support.

Here are some key elements that don’t just facilitate a smooth transition; they stand as a testament to an organization’s compassion, flexibility, and dedication to nurturing growth at every stage of a professional’s career.

Open Dialogue:

Creating an open dialogue between the executive and the company is essential. This conversation should be empathetic and aimed at understanding the motives, needs, and concerns on both sides.

A Tailored Role:

Crafting a role that matches the skills, experience, and passion of the executive will enable them to contribute uniquely, creating a win-win situation.

Offer Support:

Providing emotional and practical support during the transition period helps smooth the process and reassures the individual that their choice is respected and valued.

Examples of Success

The journey we’ve explored isn’t just about reshuffling roles; it’s a transformative process. Let’s look at some examples that demonstrate the powerful impact of such a transition.

The decision of a senior executive to embrace a lesser role is not a mere reshuffling of corporate hierarchy but a profound shift that carries ripple effects beyond the individual.

This bold choice, fueled by passion and authenticity, illuminates paths to success that are often overlooked in the conventional corporate landscape. Whether it manifests in individual fulfillment, enhanced organizational benefits, or the creation of a more genuine and compassionate corporate culture, these transitions are emblematic of success redefined.

The following examples demonstrate how stepping into a lesser role can be not only a personal triumph but a transformative force within the organization.

Individual Fulfillment: Returning to a role that an executive loves can rejuvenate their career, increasing their overall happiness and well-being.

Organizational Benefit: Their wealth of experience and knowledge can infuse fresh energy and insights into the role, boosting innovation and productivity.

Creating a Culture of Authenticity: This bold move can set an example within the company, fostering a culture where personal growth and authentic career paths are celebrated.


The decision for a CRO or any other senior executive to step back into a lesser role like a Client Partner is a deeply personal and brave one. Far from being a retreat, it’s a thoughtful alignment of life’s priorities, passions, and purpose.

Companies that support and facilitate such transitions stand to gain not just a more engaged and passionate employee, but a richer, more empathetic corporate culture. By recognizing that power and titles are not the only measures of success, we open the door to a more fulfilling and loving approach to work and life.

In the end, it’s not just about what we achieve, but how we achieve it, and how fulfilled we feel along the way. It’s a lesson in love, empathy, and the courage to follow our hearts, even when it leads us down an unexpected path.

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