The Four Phases of a Successful Leadership Transition

All of us as leaders have assumed new leadership roles either our first or one of many new challenges. Congratulations if you’re in a new leadership position. You’re embarking on what can be a time of great personal and professional growth — as long as you take it step by step and follow a few basic principles. Having been through the experience several times I’d like to share with you some of what has worked for me.

Perhaps one of my biggest challenges occurred when I transitioned from the board of directors to the CEO position at what was one of the largest privately owned real estate publishing and printing companies in the world. The two owners handed me the reins during a time of enormous technological change. My role was to take an overhead-heavy traditional printer into the internet age. It was my third CEO position but I was only 49 years old.

During my 7-year tenure we totally rightsized the company starting with a 20% reduction of the workforce from 750 to 600. We grew revenues by 250% increased profits sixteenfold added 225 new jobs over seven years and eventually sold the company to a private equity firm. Those seven years confirmed for me several important principles of successful leadership transition. First and foremost is that being thrust into a leadership role doesn’t automatically make you a leader. But when you’re hired to effect change a leader rather than a manager is what you need to be.

Getting off on the right foot as a leader is essential and in my experience consists of four phases:

1. Learn

Start by learning as much as you can. Talk to the previous leader if possible about what worked and what didn’t. Talk to people at the grassroots level — employees vendors and customers — about what they like and don’t like. Get a sense of the past and what’s already there.

2. Assess

Don’t go in ready to aim and shoot but if the situation is dire be a quick study. Assess your talent. Do you have the right talent to accomplish what you need to accomplish? If not are there people in the organization who could be part of the leadership team? What changes will you need to make in structure technology customer experience employee culture and vendor relations?

3. Communicate

People resist change when they don’t understand what’s happening. So as you get your bearings start communicating. People know change is coming but not the magnitude. Communicate the state and direction of the business clearly and relate it to each person. Use whatever means of communication you have such an in-house newsletter staff meetings private lunches and companywide video conferences. I created a pocket card that listed the five things everyone needed to focus on.

4. Act

Whatever actions you need to take be fair decisive and quick. If layoffs are necessary don’t drag them out. In my case we laid off 20% of the workforce in a single day. When you must reduce staff do it with integrity and leave the departing employees with their self-esteem intact while assisting them in their new job search. If you have good people doing obsolete jobs try to find them other roles in the company. Hold everyone accountable including yourself.

Perhaps the most important point to remember is that you can’t be a leader without followers. You have to earn your new team’s trust and respect. So keep your eyes ears and mind open.