Confused businessman standing in front of a wall of question marI recently completed my transition out of a ministry that I led for two decades.  The transition took sixteen months from the time I informed the board that I wanted to leave until I handed the baton successfully to my successor. I learned two lessons right away:

  • Boards are great at launching leaders, not so great at helping them finish well.
  • Young leaders are great at launching, but not so great as they age at figuring out their exit plan.

Most leaders do not finish well.   And most do not leave well. With thousands of Boomers turning 65 every day, major leadership transitions are here to stay.  Nothing seems harder to navigate with more potential for destruction than a poor leadership transition.  Here are lessons I learned along the way in a successful transition.

Lesson # 1:  Leaders change as they age and boards need to help them finish well.

When I finished, I was in my 60’s and had been the CEO for two decades. Once a leader indicates he or she is done; the board often turns on that leader.   They quickly cast us onto the heap of used up leaders.  I see that happen as the norm—sadly.  Thankfully that did not happen to me thanks to the commitment of strong board members.

Lesson # 2: Leaders do more damage staying too long that by leaving too soon.

In my 40’s I was fresh, innocent, full of vision and passionate about the job.  But the years take their toll, and most leaders don’t do a great job of figuring out their exit plan. Along my journey I lost my heart for the job, but could not figure out how to dislodge myself. I knew I should be all in or all gone.  There are many reasons why leaders don’t want to face the music when it is time to leave:

  • Power
  • Prestige
  • Position
  • Popularity
  • Pride
  • Personal Gain
  • Paycheck

Lesson # 3: In order for it to work, there must be a three-way partnership between the outgoing leader, the board and the leadership team.

Once a leader or his board decides it is time to sever ties, more can go wrong than right.  It is a vulnerable moment when the leader and the board have to choose to take the high road.  Three things can happen:  1) The board turns on the leader and casts them aside.  2) The leader goes septic and begins to harm the organization they once loved or 3) Everyone takes the high road and decides to carry out a successful transition.

Lesson # 4: Honor the departing leader as much as the incoming one.

Some leaders leave in great standing, others not so much.  Stories abound of leaders stealing, destroying and generally misbehaving on the way out.  But I have also observed many boards get down right petty with a departing leader that has poured out life and soul for the organization.

I plead for generosity.  It is amazing how much boards shower the new leader with pay, perks and privilege. But on the way out they are given the boot and asked to leave their laptop and iPad behind.

Lesson # 5: Recognize that it will take time for the troops to transfer their loyalty to the new leader. 

In many ways a leadership transition at the top is like getting new parents in midstream.  A lady told me, “You have always been our leader as long as I have been here–twenty years.  It just seems like you are the only one who can do the job.”

This is true whether the leader was loved or despised.  If loved, then there is the time it takes to love the new person and transfer the loyalty.  If despised, then there will be huge trust issues to overcome.

Lesson # 6:  Spend the money and take the time to do a good search for the new leader.

I am amazed at how many searches end up with the selection of the wrong leader.  A principle that our board put into practice is that the right leader was the constant and time was the variable.  It was more important to take the time to get it right than to rush at grabbing the wrong person.

Lesson #7:  Pray, pray and then pray more about the search process.

When our search was over, the head of the search firm said this about our search team and its leader, “In 150 professional searches, I have never seen a search team chair and a search team but so much time and effort into prayer over the process.

Lesson #8: Over communicate about the process to the troops.

It is imperative that the board keeps all the stakeholders informed about progress.  When people are left in the dark, they go negative and think the worst.  Trust is so important, and nothing maintains trust better that communication. We developed a section on our website dedicated to posting periodic search updates.

Lesson #9: Honor your successor and your predecessor.

This does not always work, depending on how the predecessor left.  But when at all possible, tee your successor up for success.  I learned that from my predecessor.  “Don’t try to fill my shoes,” he told me when he left, “ I am taking them with me.”  He became my biggest supporter after he retired. I have done the same with the man who followed me.

Lesson #10:  If at all possible, have a baton passing ceremony. 

One of the best examples of leadership transition in the Bible was Moses passing the baton to Joshua (Numbers 27:12-18). A good handoff builds huge trust in the board’s transition process, gives the predecessor the opportunity to transfer the leadership mantle and helps everyone in the organization transfer their allegiance to the new leader.  Many times it is not possible, but if it is it will smooth the transition greatly.

I have been friends with Hans Finzel for over 35 years. He is one of the most effective leaders I know. He  served as President and CEO of World Venture for 20 years. He has authored numerous books including his bestseller “The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make.” He is the host of the itunes podcast “The Leadership Answer Man.”