Speaker's podium
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“You can speak well if your tongue can deliver the message of your heart.” -John Ford

"These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…." Deuteronomy 1:1.

At the end of Moses’s career, we get a closer look at Moses, the man, and Moses, the leader. The Book of Deuteronomy comprises three major discourses that Moses delivers to the Israelite congregation. We recall that at the burning bush, Moses felt he was not the right candidate for the onerous task of leading the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. He claimed that the Israelites would not believe him as God’s messenger. Despite God's assurance that He will be with him, Moses stressed his shortcomings: "Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words; I was not yesterday nor the day before, and still I am not since You spoke to Your servant; I am slow of speech and tongue."[1]

When recruited for his position, Moses had no leadership experience, certainly not as a charismatic, inspirational speaker. However, we see that Moses has honed his speaking skills during his 40 years of leadership, the vast majority of which are not recorded.[2] (No doubt his career offered him more than the 10,000 hours needed to develop these skills). Deuteronomy, the last of the Five Books of Moses, showcases Moses, the orator, holding forth with much practical wisdom, historical perspectives, and some severe admonitions to equip the generation about to enter the Promised Land.

Reviewing the Israelites' 40-year journey, Moses shares his perspective on the people's achievements and failings. He surveys the spiritual highs, like receiving the Ten Commandments and many other commandments but does not shirk away from the low points, like the Sin of the Spies. Some events and commandments appear here through a different, more personal lens, emphasizing the messages he wanted the nation to internalize and cautioning them of some predictable pitfalls. Here are two of Moses's key admonitions:

  • Never forget your past, especially your experience of slavery, so that you will be benevolent to society's weak members
  • Be sure to stay clear of the local inhabitants' customs in in the land of Canaan, especially their style of worship, and when you prosper, don't ever lose sight of by Whose grace you have flourished and to Whom you shall remain committed.


Messaging the next generation

In his farewell address of 1796, toward the end of his presidency, George Washington shared his insights after 45 years of public service. The reader will no doubt notice the remarkable parallels with Moses’s valedictory: For Washington, unity of government is the basis for independence, liberty, and prosperity; thus, allegiance to the union must be prioritized over regional or political party loyalty.

Washington encouraged amicable relations with all nations but cautioned against excessively close alliances. He highlighted the people’s common values: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” As testimony to these timeless messages, Washington’s address is read annually on his birthday in the U.S. Senate to this day.[3]

A retiring CEO or other senior figure needs to consider how their departure will affect the organization and what messages would lift it into a new era. Whether speaking at a farewell banquet or sitting in an exit interview with the organization's board of directors, the CEO should forecast a prosperous future with the new leadership, even if accompanied by subtle warnings not to abandon the qualities that have historically brought the organization to its success.

Looking at top CEOs' messages to share with their workers and stockholders, we note some central themes.

-Jack Ma's retirement as Alibaba's CEO in 2018 led him to survey Alibaba's history, mission, and what is needed to continue to thrive:

When Alibaba was founded in 1999, our goal was to build a company that could make China and the world proud and one that could cross three centuries to last 102 years. However, we all knew that no one could stay with the company for 102 years. A sustainable Alibaba would have to be built on sound governance, culture-centric philosophy, and consistency in developing talent. No company can rely solely on its founders. Of all people, I should know that…. The best thing about Alibaba is that we come together under a common mission and vision. Our mission: “to make it easy to do business anywhere.”[4]

-Ian Read retired as CEO of Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, at the end of 2018. His insights incorporate the pillars of a successful organization:

Culture is paramount. You'll fall without a positive one; it's just a matter of when. Our biggest competitors have bright people, just like us. They have capital, just like us. How do we set ourselves apart? A wonderful company culture that people are willing to work hard to foster.

  • You don't have to know everything; you just have to be willing to learn.
  • Speak up when you see something wrong. What if no one else does either?
  • Show up and be ready: Sometimes, your next opportunity is just about serendipity.[5]

What are some common themes of these retiring CEOs? Respect the organization's culture that has been honed over time; don't lose sight of its mission and remain engaged; even with rapid change, its DNA must be maintained and managed to ensure continued success.

Moses gave us a timeless template for the CEO’s departure speech. However, today’s speeches will probably need to be a bit briefer than Moses’s--Deuteronomy has 34 chapters! Today, Moses's messages would be boosted by a giant screen and the latest presentation software.

Career tips:

For managers. A departing CEO's exit interview with the board is a sensitive and often charged event. A common goal for CEOs would be to help place the organization on the right footing with the new leadership. You may frame this as an opportunity to share your legacy with the board, especially the insights you have compiled over the years from dealing with the organization's ups and inevitable downs.

For instance, how can these insights guide strategy for confronting current and anticipated challenges and opportunities? You may present an updated SWOT [6] analysis focusing on what mistakes can be avoided in the future and what the leadership should modify or retain. You may also divide your messages by providing a general overview to all the workers and offering more specifics at a meeting with the board and your successor.

Don't be surprised, however to hear some mixed messages: sincere adulation for a job well done but also a tepid response to your specific recommendations for the future--they may be thinking ahead with a new agenda.

For departing employees. Exit interviews are often among the employee’s final acts. The employer or supervisor may want your take on the organization to repair certain aspects and help retain other employees. Prepare for this meeting carefully, almost like a job interview. While it may be tempting to "let it all hang out," your goal is not to exact vengeance or vent about never being given a proper parking spot but to keep your cool and depart with the prospect of a positive recommendation when the time comes.

Try this: If you need to ventilate upon leaving an organization, find a venue (with friends, family) that will allow you to indulge. The employer will have their goals for the meeting, but you need to remind yourself of your goals. If you choose to give feedback, even mild criticism, in the exit interview, it's best to equip yourself with specifics (e.g., "I felt that my job didn’t allow me to apply my skills fully" or "I think Martha Smith has great potential as a leader"). General feelings, even if authentic for you (“I really liked it here!”), will evoke a smile but probably not so useful for the interviewer. Take some tips from your initial job interview when you happily shared concrete examples.


[1] Genesis 4:10. [2] Most of what we know about Moses’s long career is limited to the first two and the 40th years. [3] Pruitt, S. (2020). George Washington warned against political infighting in his farewell address.History.com [4] Lahiri, T. (2018). Read Jack Ma’s letter announcing his retirement as Alibaba chairman. Quartz. [5] Nargi, A. (2020). 6 things I learned about work from a retired CEO. PGSG. [6] SWOT--an analysis of the organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.