4 Keys to Successful Leadership Transitions

Leadership Transitions – sometimes they are welcomed and sometimes they are dreaded. Either way, they are never easy and when not done well can leave lasting scars. If you are in a transitional situation, these 4 keys to successful leadership transitions are useful.

Too often, people focus on the logistical aspects of the transition and neglect the interpersonal. The departing leader, the new leader and the board all play critical roles. They must manage the interpersonal, and if they do, there is a much greater probability that the transition will go smoothly.

Business leadership transitions occur for many reasons:

  • An owner selling the business to a family member, partner or outside interest.
  • Leadership change opens the role allowing another team member to advance in the organization.
  • Crisis such as death, accident or illness requires an immediate transition
  • A leader chooses to leave the organization or is forced out by owners or board

So, how best can leaders best handle transitions? Consider the following 4 keys to successful leadership transitions as a guide.

1. Clearly define roles.

For the former leader within the organization. While a clean break is usually healthiest for the new leaders and the organization, for many reasons this often does not occur. If the former leader is the owner, parent or CEO becoming chairman, they will still want to be involved in some way. It is healthiest for the organization if the former leader has a well-defined and limited role. Most of his communication should be with the new leader and not the people under them.

2. The former leader creates a new identity. 

This really applies to those who are transitions, however staying within the organization. Identity is attached to leadership in the sense of the leader’s purpose within the organization. During the time of transition, that identity is shifting and needs a new focus. Often the new leader, board members or consultants could help the former leader create their new identity. 

What are the former leader’s passions, interests, and hobbies? While hobbies, such as golf, are time-consuming they rarely offer the mental stimulation or recognition they need to form their new identity. Could they volunteer, mentor or consult outside the organization or take on a project of some kind? This is a time when the former leader could make a difference by getting involved in a non-profit or helping young entrepreneurs.

3. Communication is key. 

When both the former and new leaders talk about their new relationship, their emotions, and identities, they could work through many issues festering just below the surface. The new leaders must always treat the former leader respectfully and explain upfront that they may be doing some things differently. 

They could identify where they are aligned and not aligned, and discuss how to resolve the unaligned areas. Everyone must be invested in helping the former leader move on and the new leaders take charge.

4. Role of the Board. 

The best way that members of the board could support the transition is to transition along with leadership. Members of the board who have served with the former leader and are aligned with him/her could serve as confidantes to the former leader and guide him/her through the transition. They too ought to depart the board and allow new leadership to create their own board of advisors. 

Too often board members use the justification of having institutional knowledge when in fact this knowledge could prevent the organization from moving forward in a reinvigorated way. Boards today require fresh thinking and diverse perspectives. 

What better time to create that, than in a transition of leadership.

The smoothest transitions often have a well-articulated succession plan and clear processes for managing and communicating the changes. They also address the identity, emotional and relationship issues of both the former and new leaders and create an environment of open communication among the leaders and the board. The organization moves forward by respecting the former leader while having the latitude to innovate and build a team for the future. 

When done well, everyone excels in their new roles and the organization thrives. As an additional option consider hiring a transitional leader to aid the process.