So you’ve been leading your organization for a year or two, maybe more, and now it’s time to turn over your pride and joy to another leader. You’ve given it everything you’ve got, as you poured your heart and soul into this organization striving to lead your team to new heights. Don’t worry, life will continue for your organization and the team you had the honor to serve with. I learned a long time ago there are many capable leaders, many better than you, and they will do just fine without you. Ouch, that can be a bitter pill to swallow, but sometimes we need to check our ego at the door and realize your team will continue to move on without you. However, there are some practical steps you can take to ensure a smooth transition so your team can continue to perform at maximum effectiveness as a new leader joins the team and continues to run the race. This post focuses on leadership in transition; an area in leadership I haven’t seen a great deal written on.
How will you pass the baton?
- First, Start with the Basics: There are many aspects to transitioning leadership that you can’t let fall by the wayside or just assume they will get handled. The basics include some simple things such as ensuring your successor is lining up a place to live, has information on the area if it is new to them, you are working through the bureaucracy of in-processing, setting up computer accounts, and the list goes on. Take an active role in taking care of the basics in transition. One thing I’ve often found useful is when I arrive into a new job, I start thinking about transition from day one. I start writing down things I need to do and areas I am focusing on as I come into an organization so I can have a checklist of sorts ready for the next leader. Really? Yes, really! I know it sounds a bit odd, but I’ve found being ahead of the game in this area really pays big dividends. As I passed the baton for the USAFRICOM J4 family to another very capable leader, I literally started working on our transition product nearly two years prior. Don’t take my word for it, ask my front office. In my opinion, it’s much more productive to take a long term view as transition is inevitable, and if you wait until the end, time will quickly steal away leaving you with a less than desirable turn over. In the Air Force we have a sponsor program to ensure a smooth transition for new members. Don’t take this responsibility lightly—be a great sponsor for your team’s new leader and set the example for others to emulate. Open the lines of communication early and often.
- Make Yourself Available: The person taking over for you is likely a bit overwhelmed, but also excited. They have a lot to think about and get done, plus they will likely have many questions. You know the organization you’ve been leading inside and out. You know the good, the bad, and the ugly! Engage your successor early on and come up with a plan for you to discuss the key issues such as personnel, vision, challenges, and opportunities. You will be able to provide some great insight and also give some peace of mind and there is nothing too trivial … if it’s important to your successor it should be important to you. As the new leader comes into the organization, make sure you take the time to walk them around to meet the new team and key personnel they will interact with. Allow them to shadow you to key meetings so they can see the interaction first hand. Help them experience the battle rhythm of the day so they know what to expect. I know this isn’t always possible, but when the opportunity allows, seize it. In the culture I grew up in we call this leadership transition period “left seat/right seat” harkening to our Air Force aviation roots of either the left seat or right seat pilot being at the controls, but never both at the same time. Make yourself available and continue leading until your successor takes control; you must know when to hand off the controls so they can start flying the airplane.
- Tee Your Successor Up For Success: As you ponder the transition, you hopefully have a sense of accomplishment, because the team you are leading is running at top speed and you want them to continue to excel. Sure there is always room for improvement, but you have a sense of satisfaction that your organization is on it and running at peak efficiency. One mark of a great leader is the ability for your team to continue functioning with excellence on their own without you at the helm. You can take some concrete steps to set your successor up for success. First, set-up a handful of quick wins as a good way to start. This can be areas you’ve been working that are close to meeting a key milestone, but not quite over the goal line. That’s okay, set-up your successor to score the goal and get some early victories under their belt. It will help demonstrate confidence in the leader and the team. Second, start preparing your leadership team for the ensuing transition. A new leader will have a different approach, a different style, with different strengths and weaknesses … the bottom line: things will be different. However, different can be good and you need to continually emphasize the positive points to a new leader coming on board with a fresh perspective. Finally, never talk poorly of your successor to anyone … that is a recipe for disaster and should be absolutely avoided. They were selected as your replacement because they have the skills to be a successful leader so set them up for success.
- Organize continuity products: This is an essential step. Arguably, as the leader you know your organization very well. If not, I’ve got some additional leadership lessons for you to consider. However, the knowledge in your head does your replacement absolutely no good, because it leaves when you do. Take the time to write things down so you can transition that knowledge and further set your successor up for success. This gets back to the point I made earlier regarding writing things down as they occur and working on a continuity product from the beginning of your tenure. If you are saying, wow I wish I did that but I’ve already been here for a year, that’s okay, start now and transition information out of your head and onto paper or a computer. You should have an established battle rhythm, standardized products, a posse of partners you work closely with, and a general flow to how you conduct business. This all provides a great starting point for your successor to build on.
- Now move on! It’s okay, let it go, and don’t look back. Chances are you are moving on to a new opportunity or maybe retiring. The last thing your successor needs is you holding onto the controls when they should be flying the airplane. Embrace the future and take time to allow yourself to transition to the next adventure on your life journey. It’s okay to check in from time to time, specifically about 30 days after you leave to answer any questions or reinforce initial observations.
Leadership in transition is complex, because there are many moving parts … just as when two racers are passing the baton, it is a critical time in the race. A dropped baton can cost the team the race, but a successful pass keeps the team moving in the right direction toward the finish line. Pass the baton with style and grace … then take on the next challenge with the same enthusiasm and passion.