Avoiding Transition Jeopardy

| by Tom McGuire

In our past two weekly blogs, my colleagues Shannon Williams and Priscilla Bratcher discussed some of the crucial factors an organization should consider when faced with a transition in executive leadership.  Shannon and Pricilla provided valuable insights through entertaining references to their respective passions, sports and the arts.

My business partner, Bert Armstrong, and I learned the inviolable rule for a successful transition from the nation’s pre-eminent practitioner, Tom Adams, President of Transition Guides. Tom’s mantra is simple: prepare, pivot and thrive. After 10 years of following his guidance with our own clients, we agree that his process is indeed the key to success. I want to focus for a moment on the “pivot” and mention three situations that can jeopardize a healthy transition process.

  • The 180-degree change.  In this instance, the board and staff are so anxious for a change of organizational culture that they will not consider a candidate who even remotely resembles the departing executive in personality, background, outlook, experience…you name it. The danger in this scenario is that undue focus is placed on individual personality traits rather than on the long-term strategic goals of the organization.
  • The 0-degree change. In this case, the board and staff are so secure with the personality and achievement of the departing executive that they are determined to clone him or her. In addition to stifling expansive organizational thinking, this attitude creates a potentially impossible situation for the new executive. I have actually heard comments about new executives that go something like this, “Well, Maggie (new E.D.) is nice enough, but she sure isn’t Lauren (retired E.D).”  Of course she’s not!  She is a unique individual who has the potential (given the proper support) to take the organization in new and exciting directions.
  • The Internal Candidate.  This is one of the most potentially volatile issues in an executive transition. If not handled thoughtfully, it can divide boards, staffs, even the broader community. During the “prepare” phase of the transition, one of two things should be made absolutely clear.  Either (1) internal candidates will not be considered, or (2) internal candidates are welcome to apply for the position, but they will be subject to the same review process as all external candidates.  In my experience, the second scenario is far more common, but it’s also far more delicate.  It is much easier to say that all candidates will be evaluated equally than to honestly compare Bob (well-liked, plays golf with a couple of board members, 10-year track record with the organization) to Samantha (lives across the country, has a funny accent, but has transformed her current organization).

At Armstrong McGuire, we believe that each of these three “pitfalls” can be overcome if the board and staff prepare carefully for the transition, are aware of all potential threats, and – above all – are clear on the goals of the organization and have created a detailed profile of the talents and background that an individual must have to help them meet those goals.  Join our conversation and share your stories of transition challenges and how you’ve overcome them.


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