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5 lessons for creating orderly transitions

2 min read


Business executives concerned about arranging peaceful transitions in the leadership of their companies may not want to look to Washington for guidance these days. Although the nation is embroiled in either two or three wars, depending on what you call the use of military force in Libya (another place not to look for orderly baton passes), it’s far from clear who’ll succeed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in supervising the Pentagon’s more than 3 million employees and its annual budget in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Officials in the administration and on Capitol Hill say the leading candidate is CIA Director Leon Panetta, but they say he’s indicated that he’d rather return with his family to California. Next on the list, the officials said, is former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a member of the Defense Policy Board, which provides the defense secretary and two other top officials with independent advice, but he’s ambivalent about taking the job and skeptical of the administration’s Libya policy.

The betting is on Panetta, but his reluctance has produced a questionable idea: Ask him to take the job for only 18 months, then switch horses again for Obama’s second term, if he gets one. In the meantime, the Defense Department’s workforce, allies and contractors, and especially the 45,000 or so U.S. military personnel who remain in a troubled Iraq, the roughly 100,000 serving in an even more troubled Afghanistan and the unknown number who are participating in the Libya action, are wondering who they’ll be saluting next.

Want to avoid that kind of uncertainty in your organization? The rules for guiding organizations through leadership transitions are pretty well-established. Among them:

  • Start early, identify likely successors, get to know them and establish a transition period when old and new can work together.
  • Avoid making the process a public spectacle.
  • Avoid appearing as if you have to persuade someone to accept one of your top jobs.
  • Don’t surprise your board of directors, your employees, or your partners and customers.
  • Try not to change horses when you’re in the middle of a major initiative.