The Leadership Transition + Succession Planning

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Begin with the end in mind.

Transitioning leadership is a challenge all companies must endure at some point. It can be hard to give up control of something you’ve invested everything in, but it doesn’t have to be as challenging as it first appears. As I began to transition out of the role of CEO, I received a call from a dear friend who asked, “What’s the most important thing I need to be aware of when I start the transition process?”

Without hesitation, I answered, “Begin with the end in mind. Envision what you want the end to look like and think about what you need to do to achieve it. If you start with the result, the challenges you’ll face along the way become much easier to address because they’re all just part of the process of getting where you want to be. There have been things I haven’t liked since we began. Oh well. What I want is the result. Sacrifices along the way are all part of getting there. When you begin with the end in mind, those sacrifices don’t seem like much. They’re simply investments you make to achieve the end you desire.”

Begin with the end in mind. That’s always good advice.

It was about 20 years ago when I first read Stephen R. Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People®”. I loved it. It spoke to me in a way very little had – before or since. Why? Most of the habits he suggested a leader follow either reflected my philosophical approach to life or helped me do a better job of managing my behavior. The 7 Habits fit me like a glove.

Covey’s Habit #2 is “Begin with the End in Mind.” It’s always the best place to start. It’s where I start whenever I’m successful accomplishing something.

On the opposite end, there’s the following excerpt from Alice in Wonderland.

Alice:       Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cat:  That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice:        I don’t much care where.

The Cat:  Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice:       So long as I get somewhere.

The Cat:  Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

This excerpt is a clear illustration of what happens when you don’t begin with the end in mind. You’ll get somewhere – if only you walk long enough.

I’ve used both models in life and business. I’m proudest of the times I’ve followed Covey’s habit. Where I’ve begun with the end in mind, I’m much more likely to get where I want to go. When I don’t know where I want to go, I frequently do wind up being somewhere. The only problem is that the somewhere I wind up generally isn’t a somewhere that I wanted to be.

Here are the specific components that made up the end I wanted to achieve through the transition.

Evolutionary Change

I wanted someone who would take the business as it was and continue it forward on a path that reflected their leadership style yet respected the past. New leadership will inevitably create new directions. I’m not concerned about that. Moving forward with a new leader will, by necessity, be different than what it would be with me. But it was important to me that the changes should be a natural evolution — not a revolution.

Cultural Consistency

Again, a new leader will evolve a different cultural presence. But the selection had to be comfortable supporting and living by our mission and values to create the future.

Leadership Strength

This required someone who could gain the confidence of our growing group of leaders who still need to be led. Ours is a group of very smart, very confident people who are each leaders in their own right. My successor would have to take the leadership chair comfortable in their ability to bring our team forward to new places together – through collaboration more than direction – accompanied by an underlying strength.

A Place for Myself

I do want to continue to work. Thus, I’d need to create an ongoing role for myself as Chairman that both benefits the organization and brings me enjoyment. There are many aspects of my job I enjoy – training, consulting, and writing at the top of the list. I enjoy travel. I want to work less and vacation more. On the negative side of the ledger, I’ve learned that I’m too much of an introvert to want to continue a day-to-day role of management or leadership once I give up the CEO mantel. I’d have to work with my replacement to design that role so that it’s comfortable for both of us.

Selling the Business

I’d need to generate a revenue stream from the transition of the business that wouldn’t disrupt its operation, force indebtedness or leave undue burdens on future operations. This was simply a matter of working with the accountants and lawyers to structure a path that leads from where we are to where we want to wind up.

Begin with the end in mind

Covey’s philosophy is much better at getting someplace than Alice’s. For a business to survive, it needs to know where it’s going, and I needed a successor who thought as I did in this one critical way.

The transition could have been really difficult. It wasn’t.

It could have been frustrating. It hasn’t been.

I could be second-guessing and meddling as change begins to take place. I’m not.

There’s only one reason I’ve been able to restrain myself from any of the three counter-productive activities above: I know the end we want to achieve. I want our business to have a successful future long after I’m gone. Based on what we’ve put in place, I believe it will.

And remember, if you want to take your business anywhere, begin with the end in mind. It’s a philosophy that will serve you well.