Transition of top-level leadership can present numerous challenges to organizations. In the first decade of the 21st century, the challenges are more acute than at any time in the recent past. The retirement of the baby boom generation, increased demand for accountability and performance of organizations, and the speed and complexity of technological change - these factors only heighten those challenges.
Transitions in high-performing organizations present a special set of problems because those organizations have features worth preserving, results that need to be sustained, and relationships that need to be kept intact. The risk of losing ground is a troublesome aspect of transition in such settings.
So how can healthy organizations prepare for transitions in ways that preserve their best qualities? How can they promote stability and, at the same time, foster heightened levels of innovation and performance? And how can they balance the uncertainties of change with employee needs for security, direction, and job satisfaction?
A first step is acknowledging and addressing both the pitfalls and opportunities presented by transitions among top managers. Transition need not be traumatic. If thoughtfully planned and implemented, it can preserve the best of what is in place and open a path to unexpected accomplishments.
A transition model
By following a few key strategies, organizations committed to the value of training and development in sustaining excellence in performance can ease the blows of transition. A model for effective transition incorporates at least seven elements:
- identifying features worth preserving
- communicating throughout the organization
- building strong management teams
- completing major tasks and projects
- recruiting and selecting successors
- orienting and training new managers
- building social networks.
Formal written transition plans that address these elements explicitly and in detail have benefits. They capture the transition strategy in a clear blueprint for action that includes timeframes and mileposts. They are tools for communicating with stakeholders and inserting direction and accountability into the process.
Identifying features worth preserving
Being explicit about what is worth leaving behind and what is worth preserving for the future is the foundation of a sound transition. For outgoing managers, it sets a framework for sorting out the qualities and competencies needed in successors, and for ensuring continuity in areas that work well. The exercise of identifying what works may also reveal gaps and areas with room for improvement.
To identify elements worth preserving, it may be valuable to consider specific categories and ask, "what from these categories is worth preserving as the organization moves into the future?"
- organization vision, purposes, and goals
- management philosophy
- hiring philosophy and practices
- training and development practices
- financial stability and resource development capacity
- product or service quality
- customer/client satisfaction
- employee satisfaction
- partnerships and collaborations
- leadership, decision making, and innovation capacity throughout the ranks.
Engaging the right mix of people to arrive at an inventory of features worth preserving can bolster the validity and credibility of the resulting product, and make it a useful guide to navigate transition steps.
Communicating throughout the organization
The prospect of top management transition can create uncertainty and anxiety. The best antidotes are information and participation. The written transition plan offers a tool for communication. Involving stakeholders in planning reduces uncertainty and promotes understanding. Encouraging employees to help identify qualities and competencies needed in managers reinforces a sense of influence over the changing landscape.
Regular, open, transparent two-way communication in a variety of forms reduces feelings of isolation and powerlessness. Explicit plans and continuous reviews of progress reassure stakeholders, establish direction, and insert accountability. Regular meetings, focus groups, emails, and individual conversations can contribute to information exchanges with far-reaching effects on sustaining productivity and safeguarding morale.
Building strong management teams
No effective, healthy organization can rely on one or a few individuals for its strength. The lone charismatic leader is largely a myth. Genuine, lasting strength in organizations is built on shared leadership - teams of people who complement one another's assets and compensate for one another's deficits.
The stronger the team and the more widely leadership is dispersed throughout an organization, the greater its chances for weathering major transitions. A factor certain to mitigate the loss of effective leaders is the existence of robust, confident teams capable of building on and sustaining success.
When authority is vested in teams, influence transcends individuals. Any one manager has strengths and weaknesses, but as teams, managers can be a strong, stable force for good.
How can a management team arrive at the place where it has the level of competence equal to the demands of the leadership transition? Getting there is not a simple task. The basis is trust, and only time, nurturing, and experience can bring that about. Intentional steps in the right direction, however, can be helpful.
Managers can consciously focus on linking their words, decisions, and behaviors to expressed organizational values. They can aspire as a group to be clear and united about their goals. They can construct a way of working together that permits conflicts to be raised and addressed. And they can mutually agree on team standards and protocols explicitly designed to build capacity to lead effectively. Examples of what basic team standards might address include
- frequency and agenda of meetings
- meeting protocols (beginning and ending on time; how agendas are set; and how records of agendas, decisions, and follow-up are kept)
- principles guiding interaction (respect, shared responsibility, conflict resolution, and confidentiality)
- decision-making guidelines (how information is used, whether majority or consensus prevails, and how decisions are communicated outside the group)
- ways in which learning and development are integrated into the team.
Protocols and standards do not ensure or replace respect and trust, but they help form a context that allows relational elements to flourish. They promote the expectation and means for advancing a climate of mutual support, particularly when new managers come into the group.
Veteran members can further these aims by welcoming new members, inviting participation, partnering around difficult or sensitive issues, allowing them to observe routine and crisis situations, and introducing them to key partners.
A strong leadership group is deliberate and intentional in carrying out its work. Written plans, policies, and records of decisions document what has been historically agreed upon and are less likely to be subject to arbitrary change. They form a basis for trust and a fabric of continuity.
Completing major tasks and projects
During leadership transitions, significant business should not be left unfinished, in terms of specific tasks or relationships. Finishing things up is a gift to successors. On the other hand, when organizations are in flux, it is impossible to tie up all the threads in advance of transition. But matters of serious weight that are outstanding need to be identified, their status defined, and all relevant information marshalled.
At times, outgoing leaders may decide to leave some things undone. It may be advisable to keep a key position open in deference to a successor, to postpone starting a project that will take some time to complete, or to delay one with significant long-term policy implications or controversial aspects that are not easily resolved.
However, outgoing managers contribute immensely to easing transition when, at a minimum, they anticipate and identify critical issues on the horizon, particularly those crossing into personnel, financial, and legal realms.
Recruiting and selecting successors
The single most important strategy for effective transition of leadership is selection of the right people. Matching the right people to the right jobs leads to high performance and enhances the work environment. With the right people, results improve, morale builds, conflict is reduced, and lawsuits are less likely.
These far-reaching hiring decisions affect both quality of products or services and the bottom line. Nowhere else in an organization is the correlation between the right people and the best results stronger than at the top leadership level.
Selection begins with setting the appropriate criteria and designing recruitment to reach the people who meet those requirements. Based on analysis of organization values and job requirements, selection criteria describe the qualities and competencies desired. Conventional criteria address education, experience, knowledge, skills, and personal qualities.
Organizations that want to ensure sound transitions need to go beyond traditional criteria and explicitly tie qualifications to research findings that correlate effective leadership with emotional intelligence and capabilities often difficult to capture in measurable terms.
These include seeing the big picture, adapting to change, dealing with diverse stakeholders, and cultivating relationships. Increasingly, ways of uncovering whether candidates possess those qualities and competencies are emerging. Thorough background studies and visits to sites where candidates work can be revealing.
Representative, inclusive selection processes also afford safeguards. Drawing on perspectives of internal and external stakeholders who understand the leadership requirements is invaluable.
Orienting and training new managers
Hiring is the first step of orientation. The process itself conveys the values, goals, and expectations of an organization. And a badly executed process conveys a message as loudly as a well structured one. A selection process begins the training of new leaders by the way it structures recruitment, presentations, interviews, and background studies.
Once a hiring decision is made, it is a mistake to neglect formal orientation to introduce new leaders to central issues and concepts - values, purpose, and structure; best practices of the industry; past accomplishments; personnel policies and practices; ethical standards; financial conditions; government, community, and media relations; safety and security matters; and measures of organization performance. A logically organized resource manual that systematically gathers essential information in a single, easily accessible format can effectively complement orientation.
Effective orientation is never merely formal. Often the most important information is handed down to new generations through stories, lore, and practical tips. Good transition strategies do not ignore these sources. A corollary applies if the departing manager has much to offer and is available: hiring a successor before the outgoing manager leaves has obvious benefits for information-sharing and a smooth transition.
In good transitions, information flows. Those managing leadership change know that secrets and surprises undermine. They also recognize that history is important and that serious problems in an organization's history need to be passed on. Even dormant problems can resurface and present thorny challenges. New leaders deserve to be prepared.
Building social networks
Relationships are at the heart of leadership. No transition can neglect the importance of social networks. Like other elements of transition, this aspect begins with recruitment and selection by involving a wide range of stakeholders at every stage.
Transitions entail loss and apprehension as the familiar passes and the unknown lies ahead. Wise organizations acknowledge that ambivalence is inherent in change. They allow time for grieving and create opportunities for celebration. They conduct rites of passage that are as important to those left behind as to those moving on or coming aboard.
One strategy is to craft a series of rites of passage, including meetings, introductions, farewells, and welcoming events. The informal works here, too - outreach at every opportunity. Veteran managers need to set an example, model behavior, and take responsibility for the specific aspects of welcoming a new generation.
Following the strategies described here do not guarantee perfect leadership transitions; many factors can influence how transitions occur. But applying the elements in this model can reduce uncertainty and heighten the chances of success.
Recent research is clear: the best leaders "build enduring greatness" in organizations, and successful managing is about "fostering success in others." The strongest leaders exhibit a magical blend of professional vision and personal humility (Collins, 2001).
Instilled with this combination of qualities, those leaving a healthy organization genuinely want it to thrive. They are not ambivalent. They admire the organization's accomplishments, take pride in their contributions, and want their legacy to be continued success. They have no professional jealousy about those who succeed them. Rather they invest in the new generation both meanings of the word "succeed" - to come after and to do well. t+D