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Blog/October 3, 2018

Supporting a Leadership Transition When You Aren’t Picked: How to Prepare Yourself and Others for a Change at the Top

With nearly 50% of CEOs in engineering and construction looking to transition out of the business within the next five years, you’ll likely see a leadership transition at your organization. How you respond to the change matters.

Tensions were high at the company’s semiannual town hall. After 25 years of running his business, Mark, the founder and CEO of a midsized general contracting firm, had just introduced his successor. To the surprise of many, that successor was Pete, VP of business development, and not Jason, the VP of operations, who had long been Mark’s “heir apparent.”

Naturally, fear and uncertainty began to surface across the organization as employees questioned what the future would hold. They also worried about whether the family-like culture they loved under Mark’s tenure would remain intact. And while Jason was coping with the change himself, he knew he would have to prepare others (including his team, which was equally as concerned) for this significant change.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. In the E&C industry, almost 50% of CEOs are looking to transition out of their business within the next five years. If you are a senior executive like Jason, and if your company is ripe for leadership transition, you may have begun wondering what this will mean for you and your team.

Whether your organization has followed a rigorous succession management plan (i.e., clarification of vision, establishment of criteria for the new leaders, rigorous assessment of candidates and the intentional development of potential successors) or made new leader hiring decisions more intuitively, transition is a highly complex process fraught with risk.

In fact, a leadership change isn’t just emotional; transition is associated with real risk for businesses. In a recent study, 45% of U.S.-led companies experienced a transition failure—a rate that implies the collapse of far too many succession plans1. Succession failure can have long-range implications for businesses financially, operationally and culturally. Fortunately, senior leadership support during the transition period is one factor that can help mitigate transition risk. A closer look at Jason and his team provides practical tips for senior leaders who are experiencing a leadership transition within their organization and how they can support the change.

What Can Jason Do?

  • Understand Preferences: A leadership change at the top invariably equates to a change in style, vision and agenda. Jason will need to schedule some time with Pete, the incoming CEO, to better understand his preferences and vision. Is Pete’s agenda closely aligned with the company’s existing vision and strategy, or will his leadership fundamentally change the direction of the business? How will Pete’s leadership style differ from that of the outgoing CEO? What does Pete especially value (e.g., profitability, growth, morale and culture, efficiency and process improvement, etc.)?
  • Provide Feedback: As a senior executive who is working closely with the new CEO, Jason can provide Pete with beneficial, positive and constructive feedback. Jason will have to find a way to challenge the new leader and share his perspective (when appropriate). And all stakeholders must establish trusting relationships where feedback is valued and viewed as developmental. When senior leaders hear and accept feedback early in a transition, they are more likely to successfully transition into an executive role.
  • Get Aligned: One of the incoming CEO’s greatest allies is a fellow senior executive who is aligned with the new CEO and committed to his or her organizational vision. Jason and other senior leaders must not propagate a hidden agenda – Jason needs to demonstrate his commitment and support to Pete early and discuss ways to continue to drive the organization forward. Without alignment, Jason will not be able to motivate and inspire the troops.

What can Jason do for his team?

  • Set Direction: It’s not about the what, but why. Jason must set a clear direction and communicate why Pete’s leadership and his vision will be beneficial for everyone in the organization. Jason must show how every individual, department and division can support Pete’s vision, strategic direction and agenda.
  • Lead by Example: Jason must also demonstrate his commitment to Pete and his team, who will look to him for cues on how they should react to the change. Displaying his confidence in the direction of the organization, providing positive verbal and nonverbal behaviors to others, and being an active listener and a supportive coach will send an important message to the team. Poisoning the well by sending critical or pessimistic messages about the leadership change may have unintended consequences (e.g., poor team morale or disengagement).
  • Get Personal: Jason must observe the current state of his team and peers and get personal with them. Are they aligned with the vision and strategy? Are they engaged and positive about the future? How ready are they to accept and support the change? How will this shift in leadership impact them personally and professionally? As a leader, Jason needs to make sure his team’s concerns are addressed throughout the process and go the extra mile to find out the answers to the members’ questions.
  • Communicate Effectively: As with all change initiatives, it’s important to have transparency in communication during this critical transition. Jason should avoid the perception of hidden agendas by involving his team early and often. Jason should also communicate challenges and opportunities as they arise, ask a lot of questions, and listen to the concerns of others.

Ready, Set, Go!

Are you and your organization prepared for a change at the top? Effective succession planning incorporates many different components, but if you are a senior executive, your new CEO and team members will look to you for leadership and support as the organization makes a massive change. By implementing the steps above, you can do your part in ensuring a smooth and effective transition.

To learn more about the succession management process, visit “Managing Succession for Lasting Organizational Success



[1] https://www.forbes.com/2009/07/30/succession-planning-failures-leadership-governance-ceos.html

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