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Leaving the C-Suite Is Bittersweet

Feb. 16, 2023
With mixed emotions, the president of a manufacturing company makes the leap from leader to guide.

IndustryWeek's elite panel of regular contributors.

Every year I choose one word to define my wildly important goal. 2023 is a year of transition personally and professionally. Through 2022, I led an industrial furnace manufacturing company, Onex. Now, my principal work is to mentor and coach the next generation of company leaders.

After leading for so many years, it is difficult to take a back seat, asking questions, listening and serving as a guide.

Going from a business owner to “retired” from day-to-day operational responsibilities is also a tough transition. When many business owners retire, they find they do not have meaningful interests to fill their days. I have been blessed with the opportunity to continue working beside my husband doing what we do best … making things better.

The first month of my transition has been filled with home remodeling projects. These projects have provided restoration for not only our home but helped us become grounded in our roots. Sometimes you must remember where you came from before you can move forward.

Looking backwards and considering what you enjoyed before your days became demanding running a company can be helpful. For me, interior design has always been a creative outlet. Yet, there have been times in my life when I felt there was no mental capacity available to be creative.

My brother-in-law called the other day. He was explaining how he must reinvent himself as his family moves from Alaska to Hawaii. He said, “Zack, the fly-fishing guide, is no more.” I hadn’t considered it before but “Ashleigh, Onex’s President, is no more.”

However, I do have the skill set to lend a helping hand to other manufacturing business leaders. I’m excited that the University of Tennessee’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership has offered me the opportunity to work alongside their team growing our local leaders and their businesses. This is an area where I can excel. And, this time, I won’t work with just one company but many companies. Imagine the ripple effect we could have in our community!

As I transition from leader to guide, I am considering how I can apply my expertise and experiences to help others.

Taking My Time

It has been a little more than month since I “retired.” At first, it was very hard to not be needed. I expected more phone calls, texts and emails asking my opinion or needing my assistance.

Upon reflection, I know that the team at Onex has the skills and knowledge necessary to lead and grow the company. And, I trust them to make the right decisions, even in difficult times.

As a leader, this stage is much like being a parent. You can only hold on to the bike seat so long before your children pedal away faster than you can run. You are left wondering, “What will I do now?”

Continuing to Say 'Yes'

Everyone wants to grow and evolve. It is simply a part of living a fulfilled life. Change means there comes a time when we must reinvent ourselves and transition to the next chapter which is scary and difficult.

So, what will I do next? I love guiding business leaders, inspiring change. I find myself saying “yes” to opportunities where my expertise can benefit others. Creating experiences for leaders to learn and grow. By developing better business leaders, I hope to play a small role in creating companies where team members feel empowered and fulfilled in their life’s work.

Have you made a transition where you had to reinvent yourself? What advice do you have for me?

Ashleigh Walters was president of  Onex Inc. through 2022 and is the author of Leading with Grit and Grace.

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