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The transition of leadership power

When leaders move to the next big thing, they must remember to help their successor take over. Read on for advice on successful leadership transitions.

7 min read


The transition of leadership power

Miguel Schincariol/Getty Images

A former coaching client, Jason, rang me last week with the exciting news of his promotion to the leadership role of his dreams. We had long ago discussed his career trajectory and created a plan for how he would develop and grow in order to achieve his goals. Now things were coming to fruition.

“I’d like your advice on how to best prepare myself for the new role,” Jason said. “I want to hit the ground running and start making some changes that I’ve felt were necessary for some time, especially if we’re going to take this business to the next level.”

While I applauded Jason’s desire to embrace his new role with enthusiasm, my response was not quite what he expected.

“Before you plan for your new role,” I asked, “how will you prepare your successor for the role you are leaving? A lot of your legacy as a leader and your reputation for the future is defined by how you help those who follow you become successful.” 

As it turns out, some of the same actions Jason needed to take on behalf of the woman who would be replacing him were the very areas of attention that he needed to focus on to thrive in his new position. Together, we established a checklist of actions that Jason needed to implement for his successor, which became a compass to guide him while establishing his leadership path in his new role.

1. Pass on the brain trust

While Jason or any other leader may find it difficult, if not impossible, to keep a file of every important item that they ever handled, being able to share the insights of your years in the role and the key issues you faced is invaluable for a successor.

Codify your processes and best practices. Share your learning about trusted resources and suppliers. Document the important business challenges (internal and external) and the history of how they came to be so your successor does not have to spend time putting puzzle pieces together. Provide details on the status of key projects and an evaluation of their likelihood for success. Identify the land mines that a new incumbent might face.

In short, seek to eliminate unpleasant surprises, especially those you can see coming.

One leader I know prepared a series of voice recordings on different topics, which he left for his successor. The new incumbent found it helpful and time-saving to listen to the former leader’s perspectives on the issues he had inherited. Further, having the information in recorded format minimized the number of documents the successor had to wade through to develop a nuanced understanding of the business.

2. Be a connector

After years in a role, you’ve probably met more people than you can count, many of whom have become valued partners and resources. Take time to introduce your successor to these individuals so they can begin forging their own relationships. Help your successor understand how to best interact with the individuals their role impacts or supports.

Willie Grant, vice president of HR, Enabling Function, for pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb, recalled how a former incumbent prepared him for a new role in a new country.

“He stayed on and helped me onboard in Asia. He introduced me to the consultants and search firms in the region. We traveled to a few countries together, and he spent countless hours with me discussing the talent and opportunities by market.

“I provided my successor with a similar courtesy,” Grant continues. “As he was from Singapore and was my direct report, he was [already] aware of the consultants and search firms. I spend a lot of time with him on the talent, opportunities within each market and provided advice on how to work with the president of Asia and the Asia leadership team members.”

3. Review talent

Helping a new incumbent establish themselves in your former role should also include preparing that individual to lead the team you’ve left behind. Providing a detailed overview of each person on the team will save the new leader months of trying to figure things out and will allow him or her to build relationships with team members faster. Because you have worked with the team, you have experience with each person’s capabilities, talents and personality — all information that a new leader will need.

Jocelyn Johnson, global director, value propositions and insights, at GE Healthcare, shared her approach to preparing a successor. While she provided the new incumbent with metrics, budget-process tools, historical data and shared organizational priorities, she felt the preparation would have been incomplete without discussing the team.

“I provided performance management details for everyone on the team,” she says. “I also reviewed Passion Profile details on the entire team in order to provide passion archetype insights on each individual. The new leader found the talent review invaluable.”

4. Buddy up

When time permits, have the new incumbent spend time with you and the team prior to taking the reins. Getting a chance to shadow you during your daily activities will provide firsthand insight about what to expect once in the role.

Jackie Stennett, vice president of Academy Women, a nonprofit offering mentoring, networking and professional development to military women, remembers how impactful shadowing her predecessor was during an important transition.

 “I found it so beneficial to have the leadership of the organization allow me to meet with and shadow my predecessor. That person graciously introduced me to team members, subordinates and key players,” she says. “I also got a chance to speak with my predecessor face to face about lessons learned, pitfalls and the strengths/weaknesses of the organization, employees and leadership team. We were also able to discuss ongoing initiatives, future goals, the vision of the organization, operating procedures, reports and metrics. This was extremely valuable advice on the role.”

5. Help establish credibility

It has been a recent tradition in the American presidency for the outgoing president to leave a personal letter for the incoming leader. These notes are often congratulatory and encouraging to the newly elected president. Expanding this historical practice to include the larger constellation of individuals your role impacts is also beneficial.

When transitioning to a new role, send a farewell note to your team and other key individuals within the organization, including suppliers, customers and other external contacts, remembering to welcome and introduce the person who will be replacing you. Share information about their background and experience in a way that establishes their capabilities and reinforces their selection as the person replacing you.

Leading with grace means transitioning from your former role and transferring your power base to a new incumbent with the best interests of the organization in mind.


Alaina Love is CEO of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well-being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

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