A change in leadership is not a change in mission. -Military maxim
The focus of January is the transition of leadership in the White House, so it’s a good time to talk about how successful leaders transition. I believe we do leadership transition well in the military, so there’s some lessons there for others. Every two to three years, commanders swap out, so being able to make that transition smoothly while continuing the mission is crucial.
Always Teaching Others
A good transition begins with a good culture—and the military culture is a learning culture. Because we work in a dangerous business with a highly mobile workforce, we’re always teaching someone else to do our jobs, and we’re culturally primed to think about how to hand off our work to our successor. For the military servicemember, the mission and the team are always more important than any single individual.
The military learning culture depends on three key factors:
Clearly defined processes:
When work processes are clearly defined, and documented, the people are able to pass their knowledge on to others. In the military, we often maintain a “continuity book” with checklists, contact rosters, and applicable regulations/resources we used to do our jobs. The theory is if someone isn’t there, another person can step in and do the work. Leaders are no different, and all of us in command and leadership positions have a collection of briefs, memos, and rosters. This idea has applicability to any organization—no private or public team can afford to have a single point of failure. If the organization fails because “Sam” is the only person on the team who knows how to do a certain task, it’s not just Sam’s fault for not ensuring he had a backup. It’s the fault of his teammates for not looking out for him, and the leader for not ensuring there was no single point of failure. Leadership magnifies that responsibility.
Training is valued and resourced:
Constant training is integral to the military culture. We dedicate time and money to ensure people remain proficient at their assigned duties. Spending time and money on training returns dividends in the forms of increased proficiency and team effectiveness. When training is done in groups, there are additional intangible benefits of encouraging learning, cross-functional knowledge, and team cohesion. The bottom line here is when the boss believes something is important, so will the team members.
Leaders encourage and model cross-functional expertise:
Leaders must set the example when it comes to establishing and maintaining a learning culture. In addition to resourcing training, leaders should know how the organization functions and how the various pieces fit together to produce the whole. This means leaders must be visible and engaged. In small teams, leaders should be able to step in and perform some if not all jobs on the team. In larger teams, leaders clearly there’s not enough mental bandwidth to know every job—but leaders surely ought to know what the various business units do to accomplish the mission of the team.
The Mission is More Important than Me
Of course, at the most basic level the linchpin of a good transition is servant leadership. When leaders understand their teams and their mission are more important than their personal desires, every transition becomes much smoother. This means leaders must be as concerned with their successor as with their own desires and agenda. Six months is about the right time to begin thinking about transitioning to the new leader. There’s no need to get the staff energized at that point, but a servant leader should begin organizing notes and background information the incoming leader will need to know. What you really want to avoid is a rush at the last minute because you want to pass along as much knowledge as possible to the “new guy.”
Once a successor is named, the real work begins. Reach out to the incoming leader and ask them about what they’re thinking and what they need. Prepare the staff as best as you can on who the new leader is and what they’re agenda might be like. Model the desire to help the new leader be successful to the team. For example, as an outgoing leader I avoided making long-term decisions that weren’t absolutely necessary. When possible, consult with the new leader—particularly on personnel decisions the “new guy” must live with. Clearly, there’s only one leader at a time, but you can ensure the organization you’ve invested yourself in and the people you’ve dedicated yourself to leading will be successful by putting energy into the transition. Lead the team all the way to the moment you hand over the reins to the new leader, and encourage your team members to be prepared for the new agenda.
One final note: never, ever, bad-mouth the incoming or outgoing leader. If you’ve got nothing good to say, then don’t say anything at all. Being negative doesn’t help anyone, least of all your team, and only reflects on you.
Mission. People. Success.
Adopting a servant leader mindset, you can ensure a smooth transition that leaves you free to move on to other things, and your team prepared to continue their success.