Leadership transitions are mostly addressed in hindsight or not at all by organizations.  And everyone suffers as a result – the person leaving, the new leader entering the role, as well as the broader organization. Direct reports of the position are also negatively impacted.

Leadership Transitions Have Serious Business Implications

Because when you get a transition right, there is so much potential upside. In terms of positive organizational outcomes: productivity increases, turnover decreases, relationships with customers, vendors, and external partners thrive. For public companies, the stock price can even go up with a well thought out, transparent and effective transition plan.

In fact, according to the Corporate Executive Board, (CEB) when transitions are successful they result in 13% lower attrition risk. And the likelihood of the organization meeting it’s 3-year performance goals increases by 90% (CEB Blogs, cebglobal.com, October 29, 2013).

But when a transition goes bad, the opposite is likely to occur.

What Is A Leadership Transition?

Leadership transitions can be any significant change in a leader’s role. The change could be caused by leaving or joining an organization, promotion, merger, acquisition, restructure or returning from a leave of absence. 

But for the purposes of this article, we will focus on leader transitions resulting in leaving the organization or company.

Leadership transitions have been on my mind for the past few weeks as the world learned more about the 2021 U.S. Presidential Inauguration and Transition.  

Regardless of where your political affiliation lies, as Donald Trump leaves office and Joe Biden enters, an actual leadership transition example is unfolding before the world. There’s no way that I could have a change and leadership blog and not cover this topic.  

As a disclaimer, this post is not about Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or the hot mess of devisiveness that we are all currently experiencing.  Rather, the focus of this blog is on the elements of a good leadership transition. 

So here goes.

Consequences and Implications of Poor Leadership Transitions

Poor leadership transition planning is not a new phenomenon.  And it certainly is not unique to political office. 

In fact, HBR recently republished a study of 5000 public and private companies around the world. 54% admitted that they did not have an effective transition process or succession plan for the most senior executive position.

And this was during a global pandemic.

Whoa!

Let’s think about the implications of that for a second.  For demonstration purposes we will use you and your life as an example.  

Think about what would happen if you stepped out of life tomorrow.  Whether expected or unexpected, tomorrow you did not return to your life as you know it.  How would the people and things you leave behind be impacted? 

All of the decisions you make today for your household, your job, your financial responsibilities, your dependents, etc.  All of the knowledge only you possess about what needs to be done, why, when, and how. It all leaves with you without transfer so that someone else can carry the baton in your absence.

The consequences can be overwhelming.

Now, imagine that same scenario for someone whose professional span of responsibility is for hundreds, thousands, or millions of people.  

Phew.

Even when there is a strong team of experts to bridge a transition,  no one except the departing leader really understands the intricacies of that role.

By now, you probably see why a thoughtful leadership transition is so important. (And why I absolutely love coaching organizations and executives through them.)

Leadership Transition Best Practices

So, let’s summarize a few transition best practices for when you are leaving your role. 

It’s should be stated that despite the circumstances of the departure, a strong leader will need to put aside personal emotions and reactions (positive or negative).

The priority should be the best interests and health of the broader organization (or country, in the case of the U.S. presidency) and the team being left behind (supporters, appointees, etc.).

#1 Communicate the decision. 

You can work with the “powers that be” to agree on the appropriate messaging.  My advice is to decide what you want the messaging to be and proactively discuss it with your boss. Rather than wait for someone else to draft the messaging on your behalf.  

Whatever the final messaging is, you as the leader should communicate directly to your team before formal organizational announcements are made.  

How you leave the role should be a reflection of how you operated during your tenure.  

Assuming that you were honest and had solid relationships with your team, you won’t want to undermine that trust as you exit.  If you do, your team will doubt everything you ever told them.

#2 Instill confidence in all stakeholders.

This one is very important but frankly many leaders fail this step mainly because of their ego.  

The hard truth is that organizations and teams (and the U.S. government) are bigger than any single person.  People leave and join organizations and executive roles every single day. 

As leaders, part of our responsibility is to build organizations and teams that can deliver on the mission. Even if we are not still at the helm.  

During a leadership transition, to ensure that the organization and team will continue to thrive when you’re gone, it is important to reassure stakeholders (ie, employees, customers, vendors, and the community) that the business will continue with success.  

This is so critical that some organizations will put binding legal agreements in place. Non Disparagement or Non-Disclosure Agreements are often enacted to ensure leaders don’t incite discontent on deliberately sabotage on their way out.

#3 Get clear on what needs to be accomplished in the interim.

The vast majority of leader transitions are known in advance. This means there can be a period of time between when you leave and a new leader joins.  

So, you may find yourself still having to lead and make decisions for months, knowing that you will not be there to see execution through.  

For this reason it becomes important to clarify with your superiors what aspects of the role and day-to-day decision making you should continue to oversee. Versus what, if anything, should be relinquished to someone else for the remainder of the time.  

Often, I’ve seen leaders’ scope narrowed during the interim period to allow the leader to focus on a few key deliverables the organization needs before she departs.

#4 Document a transition plan.

Let’s face it, only you know all of your responsibilities.  

No matter what your boss thinks or what is on the job description (if one exists), you are the person who has lived and breathed the role. This makes you the ideal person to put a transition plan together for the next leader.  

Now whether you do this yourself or you have someone help you put it together, the content would come from your brain.  And if you’re balking because it feels like it’s a lot – I won’t lie to you – it is a lot.  

But it is a key step, particularly if there will be a time gap between your departure and the next incumbent.  

Without a transition plan, important work will inevitably fall through the cracks and business goals will be jeopardized.

#5 Onboard your successor.

Think about all the things you had to learn on your own when you first joined the company. Wouldn’t you have come up the learning curve much quicker if your predecessor had onboarded you properly? 

Even with a well thought out transition plan, there are so many nuances and intricacies in your head that should be shared but can’t be documented.

Potentially it can be uncomfortable if a new person is in role and you are educating and coaching them as they start.  Because you will no longer be the decision maker. And the new leader will want to and should do things their own way, different from how you handled everything.  

But if you can get beyond that, keeping the betterment of the team and broader organization at the forefront. It’s an opportunity for you to continue to have an impact, without the weight of all of the role’s responsibilities.

Not to mention, if the company really wants you to onboard the new leader after you’ve departed (assuming you’ve left the company altogether rather than transferring to another internal role), you may be able to negotiate a “consulting fee” particularly if it will require a good deal of your time.

One final thought…Organizational culture and personal circumstances make every leadership transition different.  So these need to be taken into consideration to develop a plan that makes the most sense for you, the organization, and the situation.

Comment below to share lessons learned from your own leadership transitions or if you have any related questions.

Until next time –  think broader, be better, and lead bolder.

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