Transition: Managing the “Ins and Outs” of Leadership

I am often asked how to successfully manage leadership transition within an organization. How do you end well? Or conversely, how do you start off on the right foot? My friend, Bob Russell, has written an excellent book, Transition Plan, on the successful leadership changeover following his 40-year tenure at Southeast Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. I highly recommend it, as his insights have greatly influenced my thinking on succession planning.

Upon leaving my first pastorate, I did not train or equip anyone to replace me. As a result, the momentum I developed at the church evaporated six months later. I had failed to position the congregation to thrive in my absence. From that experience, I learned that the ability to successfully hand off the reins of an organization is a learned skill. In particular, I discovered that when transition is on the horizon, leaders need to…  

1) PLAN AHEAD

Leadership transition must be the number one priority of any leader who voluntarily steps away from her position of influence.

In his book, Built to Last, Jim Collins quotes Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric as saying, ‘From now on, [choosing my successor] is the most important decision I’ll make. It occupies a considerable amount of time everyday.’ He spoke those words in 1991, nine years before his anticipated retirement.
~ Bob Russell and Bryan Bucher, Transition Plan

No transition will happen smoothly unless the organization’s core leadership team believes the change is in their best interest. For this reason, an outgoing leader must work closely with her inner circle to identify potential successors.

Incoming leaders also need to plan ahead, for as the proverb says, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” People are apprehensive of change and resistant to it. Pour the fuel of uncertainty on top of change, and you’re in for fireworks. As a new leader, use every opportunity to paint a picture of where you’re headed, and be intentional about reassuring key players of their value to the team. Your ability to communicate clearly and consistently will defuse some of the tension surrounding your arrival.

2) SAY GOODBYE

At the close of my final sermon at Skyline Church in San Diego, just prior to my closing prayer, I explained to the congregation what it meant for me to say farewell.

“When I say ‘Amen’ after this prayer, I am no longer your leader. Don’t call me ‘pastor.’ In fact, don’t call me…I won’t answer the phone. I will not officiate your wedding ceremonies, perform funerals, or respond to dinner invitations. I have loved every moment of my time here, and I love you dearly, but we need make way for our new leader.”

When you resign, leave. Let your successor do his job outside of your shadow. Make yourself available to your replacement for counsel, but only insofar as he initiates contact. Even then, refrain from giving any unsolicited input. Also, when you lend advice, do not monitor whether or not your successor implements it. After you’re no longer in charge, you need to let go 100%.

If you’re the leader entering an organization, you must gracefully, but firmly, say goodbye to your predecessor. I succeeded the founder of Skyline Church, Pastor Butcher, who was a highly effective and beloved leader. Upon my arrival, he offered to attend a neighboring church so as to be out of my way. I wanted him to be able to stay and enjoy the fruits of his labor. However, I was clear that I expected him to respect my leadership. In particular, I asked that he avoid criticizing me in front of anyone in the church. In exchange, I promised never to badmouth any aspect of his prior leadership. On these terms, we had a great relationship, but it only happened because we were both mature leaders.

3) PREPARE FOR GROWING PAINS

If you have ever gone through a major change in life, then you remember it vividly because it was undoubtedly painful. Even at their best, transitions are difficult. Accustomed to putting her imprint on the organization, the outgoing leader experiences a season of withdrawal. Meanwhile, the new leader quickly realizes that not everyone is thrilled to have her in charge.

Pastor Butcher, the leader I followed in San Diego, had the voice of an Irish tenor and was an accomplished pianist. Quite oppositely, I mangle melodies whenever I sing. On Mother’s Day, Pastor Butcher customarily did not deliver a sermon. Instead, he invited the oldest mother in the church to sit onstage in a rocking chair as he delighted the audience with songs and moved them to tears with tender stories honoring motherhood. In contrast, during my first Mother’s Day in the pulpit, I gave a normal sermon. Afterward, people came to shake my hand, as usual, but I must have had 100 people express to me how much they missed Pastor Butcher!

An incoming leader would have to be extraordinarily naïve or incredibly egotistic to think that he could make everyone happy on his new team. In some ways, an incoming leader will never measure up to his predecessor. The new leader is bound to be inferior to the person he’s replacing in at least one area. The key is not to attempt to live up to the legacy of the previous leader, but to begin crafting a legacy of your own.

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