Published: June 14, 2012
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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Five Essential Tips for a Successful Leadership Transition

Leadership transitions are key inflection points in any enterprise. A well-executed transition will influence everything from customer retention to your employees’ morale and confidence in you, so this is one internal process you want to get right.

Passing the torchSo let the transitions begin! They’re going to happen whether you plan well or not, so take the bull by the horns and follow these tips to make them successful.

1. Discuss the transition with your spouse or life partner if you have one. It’s essential to have support from the most important people in your life because the transition is going to take a fair amount of your time as you move out of the role and support your successor moving into it. If you are also moving into a bigger role, regardless of how much you’ve prepared for it, you will find yourself stretched and likely spending more time at work for a while.

2. Discuss the goals of the transitioning leader and of the successor. This is usually not one conversation, but several. The goal is to truly understand one another’s goals rather than working on potentially false assumptions about one another’s goals.

So many transitions have wound up as explosions or no transition at all, due to false, unspoken assumptions about goals. A distant cousin of mine hired a young man who assumed he was being groomed as the successor. Thirty years later, the “successor” retired, while my cousin continued to run the business until well in his 80’s.

While this is a comically extreme example, it does illustrate the importance of moving from vague visions (“I’d like to move on to a new challenge in the next few years”) to tangible goals.

This is too important to crank out in one sitting. You need time to reflect. You may find that simply hearing the other leader’s goals gives you another perspective, and influences your own goals. Give yourselves the time you need. You may find that you create a slightly (or massively) different role for the successor than you have had.

3. Privately share your successor’s name with each of your direct reports before communicating to the rest of the organization. Several years ago, the Harvard Business Review wrote an article on challenges in succession planning. One of the findings that stuck with me was how many people live under the illusion that they personally are the chosen successor when in fact they have never been considered for promotion at any point in time.

Sometimes senior leaders manipulate conversations, which is a rotten thing to do. In many cases, though, I’ve seen that there is no manipulation. The senior leader’s words carry so much weight, and the individual wants that promotion so badly, he or she reads meaning into statements that simply wasn’t there.

Once you know who your successor is, and the two of you have had your conversations, do your direct reports the courtesy of sharing your decision personally and privately. Don’t assume you know who will be disappointed. Many leaders have read these tea leaves wrong, and are shocked at some of the people who thought they were next in line.

4. Create and communicate a shared vision that will be realized after the transition. Leadership transitions can be nerve-wracking for everyone involved. H-P is just the latest example of multiple failed leadership transitions and vision drift. People remember these events from the news and often from their own bad experiences, so they have every reason to be nervous if you create no vision for the future beyond the time when you are in charge. It will feel like the organization is going to fall off of a cliff once you leave. A solid vision, combined with a good plan, will go a long way toward inspiring faith.

5. Determine the path. Make a plan and work the plan. Treat it as a project that is every bit as important as your biggest customer projects. Unless the transition is prompted by a sudden event, you should ensure that the successor assumes more of your responsibilities each quarter or every six months, with a full transition of decision-making accountability and authority, too. Put dates on your plan, and target how often you will revisit the plan to check progress and make adjustments. It’s not unusual for these plans to have a few adjustments along the way, so don’t let that bother you.

And a free bonus tip: if you can afford to slow down the pace of other organizational changes during this time without negatively impacting the business, do it. For example, it is unwise for the current senior leader to make new hires unless this can’t be avoided. The incoming leader needs the opportunity to build his or her own team, and employees generally do not like being hired by one person, only to be told a few short months later that they’re now working for someone else.

 

 



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