Leadership Transition: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

Nearly every one of us has experienced leadership transitions that could be described as “good,” “bad,” or “ugly.” And the percentages of disastrous transitions are astoundingly high. As Australian sociologist Hugh Mackay says, “Nothing is perfect. Life is messy. Relationships are complex. Outcomes are uncertain. People are irrational.” So what else should we expect but to experience our share of bad leadership transitions?

What I want to share here are a few of the complexities that make leadership transitions difficult and, more importantly, how to prevent these ugly transitions from happening to you.

Good Leadership Transitions

There are tremendous complexities to every organization. These complexities sometimes get us confused over the most important aspects to creating a smooth, healthy and positive leadership transition. It really only comes down to three main aspects:

  1. The Right Person – finding the right leader during a time of transition is not easy. Some look to “experience” in the industry as their measure of potential success. Others look to leadership traits or attributes, and still others to any number of other criteria.
    • What ultimately results in finding the right person is a combination of four key areas – capabilities, drive, character, and past performance. In our TruNorth Partner’s Succession Planning process, we use tools to measure technical skills, smarts/knowledge, breadth of experience, drive, behaviors/actions, values, emotional maturity, as well as the history of performance and current reputation.
    • These elements are not equal in importance and depend greatly on the industry, stage in the business life-cycle, and type of business. Leadership needs vary greatly among manufacturing, professional services, and start-ups as well.
    • Finding the right person is critical if a leadership transition is to be effective.
  1. A Ready Organization – understanding the need for transition and preparing for it are critical aspects that determine the success or failure in leadership transition. For an organization to be “ready,” we look to see how well defined the company is relative to the Eight Business Success factors:
    1. Leadership Team – who is leading the company?
    2. Target Markets – where are they leading them to?
    3. Unique Value Proposition – what makes them unique in the market?
    4. Strategies – how do they implement those uniqueness’s?
    5. Processes & Systems – how are those strategies supported?
    6. Action Planning & Accountability – what are the priorities and who is responsible?
    7. Resourcing – what additional resources are needed?
    8. Execution & Follow Through – how do you assure that the initiatives are accomplished?
      • If you don’t know what is working and not working now, it will be much more difficult to have a leadership transition work out well. There is enough to deal with the change in leadership; add to that the problems of the business and you have the makings of a “bad” or “ugly” transition.
  1. A Clear Vision – without it a business can survive, but with it a leadership transition can catapult the business into a healthy orbit. If you don’t know where ‘there’ is or where you wish to end up, the immediate steps become much chancier.
    • Visioning is often highly generic or ill defined. “I want to be bigger and better”.  This kind of vision provides no specificity or clarity for the team. And, the results are almost always dismal.
    • Having conducted over 300 strategic planning sessions, I know that those organizations who articulate their future with significant clarity are those that have healthy outcomes.
    • So often, a leadership transition precipitates a “new” vision or direction. I contend that having the clarity before the transition takes place allows for a much better understanding of the type person you will need to lead the company to the place you have designed.

Successful leadership transitions are rare. These few preparatory steps will produce a much higher probability of transition success.


About the Author

Scott Philips

Scott Philips is an interim executive with over 30 years of diversified experience in enterprise wide leadership. He is recognized as an action-oriented leader with strengths in strategic management, business assessments, employee engagement & productivity, business development and enterprise selling. Scott’s experience in analyzing market data, developing solutions and effectively executing plans have resulted in significant revenue growth and operational improvements for a number of companies in a wide variety of industries.