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How to Pass the Torch: Lessons in Leadership Transition

At CDF, our mission is to equip board directors, CEOs, and executives with the insights they need to guide their organizations in an increasingly uncertain future. So, we’re thrilled to share this exclusive article series, showcasing the wisdom of prominent business leaders from our CDF community. From adapting to changing market conditions to creating diverse and inclusive cultures that drive innovation, their real-life advice and insights will offer a fresh look at the managerial challenges facing organizations today.

How to Pass the Torch

Lessons in Leadership Transition from CDF’s Current and Past CEOs

By Jessica N. Grounds, CEO, Corporate Directors Forum 

Last September, I was invited by a board member of the Corporate Directors Forum(CDF) to attend the organization’s annual event, the Director of the Year Awards. At the time, I didn’t know much about CDF, other than it had an excellent reputation for bringing together and supporting top business leaders. But I was considering leading the organization, and my goal for attending was to get a feel for CDF’s network and energy.

When I arrived, I knew to look for a few key people, including the organization’s then-CEO, Christina De Vaca. When I met Christina, she was thrilled to see me. I was surprised by her warmth (later, I learned I shouldn’t have been) and her desire to introduce me to guests and show me around the event. She kindly focused on my questions and encouraged me to stay as long as I could.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Christina (Chris for short) was modeling her style of leadership and beginning the process of a smooth and healthy transition to a new leader. I told Chris just a few weeks into knowing her that I felt as if she saw things in me that I didn’t even see in myself. It was like she knew I was the right next person to take her role, and she authentically stepped into the process and made the transition, one that can sometimes be confusing and awkward, instead strategic, motivating, and enjoyable.

Not everyone gets the ability to learn so directly from their predecessor, but this type of succession planning and leadership transition has crucial benefits for organizations — research from McKinsey shows that successful leadership transitions can make or break a team’s performance and engagement.

Chris showcased, and I reciprocated, a playbook on how to pass the torch effectively. Here are some of the ways we made our transition to a new CEO a positive experience.

For the Outgoing Leader

Be Clear About Roles

Chris and I decided that in the interest of the organization, and because of our upcoming conference, that we would overlap for a month. But Chris was very clear that if I were going to take on the role as CEO, that I was the only CEO. She would stay on staff, but as a senior advisor to me. I did not ask for this, and frankly would have been fine to have two CEOs for a time, but Chris wanted me to feel that I was in the driver’s seat. She deferred to me in terms of how much she was involved and how much she was in a public role.

While this decision was not only an encouraging one for me, it also created a situation where she passed her legitimacy to me. The staff and board members were clear on who was making decisions, who to come to with questions and answers, and who was leading the charge, so they could operate from a place of clarity, not confusion.

Build Trust, Then Give Deference

Chris was incredibly insistent that decisions go to me immediately. She knew that I was equipped to make them, and I was happy to do so. There were times I asked for her opinion, but this transition forced me to understand the dynamics of the organization quickly and the kind of decisions I would have to make on my own, in just a few short weeks.

That said, my ability to feel comfortable making decisions quickly and effectively was partly due to the fact that our transition included an exercise in quick trust building. Trust is built, in part, by being authentic and sharing honest opinions. Instead of painting a perfect picture of my new role, Chris was clear about the effective elements as well as the areas of improvement. Her ability to be open about both the benefits and the challenges instilled trust and allowed me to feel more comfortable to ask difficult questions.

For the Incoming Leader

Focus on the Nuance and Internal Politics

In a new role, it’s easy to focus on the mechanics of how things are done. There are so many processes and procedures that are important to understand when you’re at the helm of a new organization. But top leaders should have already developed an ability to quickly ascertain or learn this information.

What is far more important to focus on during a transition is the nuance that is harder to learn. Understanding the institutional players, the interpersonal dynamics, and previous roadblocks is a much better use of time. This process may not be as dramatic as discovering “where the bodies are buried,” but new leaders should dig deep and relentlessly to learn the inner workings of the board, the management team, the staff, the funders, and the organizational nuance that’s not written down anywhere.

Learn From Your Predecessor

Whether the outgoing leader is retiring, as in Chris’ case, or simply moving on to a new opportunity, look to your predecessor for support. Even if you want to make big, sweeping new changes, remember that leadership is lonely, and the outgoing leader has very likely gone through many of the same things you’ll soon be facing. You will be stronger as a leader if you can learn from those who have been in the hot seat, and who can relate to the challenges and the immense opportunity to lead.

Transition and change can be hard. But effective succession planning can make the experience a powerful part of your leadership journey.

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