Create consensus among managers in terms of skills, strategies, systems, and structure.
Build their own team.
Establish relationships with their subordinates.
Assess inherited talent and understand which gaps can be fixed by developing talent and which have to be fixed by adding talent.
Diagnose power relationships in the company — learn the “chart behind the organizational chart.”
Instigate conversations to gain understanding of relevant elements of the past, present, and likely future of the company.
Learn to manage complex and critical relationships with the company’s board.
Achieving these goals demands a simultaneously deep and nuanced understanding of the company and its people, something that the newcomer may lack for the whole organization but that the exiting executive has in spades. As a result, departing chiefs can help their successors facilitate connections to the hubs of power and influence and deepen their successors’ understanding of current strategy and how and why it was formulated. Moreover, with their knowledge of the skills and talents of the organization’s employees, the outgoing executive has a responsibility to provide the newcomer with a dispassionate review of team member capabilities — who on the bus is “right,” who can be “made right” through development, and who needs to exit.
Newcomers are driven by a natural desire to further their own careers. To that end, securing early wins to build momentum is important. The exiting executive can help the newcomer identify areas that offer the best chance for quick success and highlight potential flashpoints or quagmires. Newcomers often arrive with a forceful “action imperative,” ready to undertake major change initiatives as a way of demonstrating bold leadership. Exiting executives can provide wisdom regarding how quickly and at what scale the company might support such actions.
In addition, newly arriving executives must be realistic in their performance expectations. To help with this, the exiting executive could provide a well-developed depiction of the position’s constraints and resources as well as insight about workplace norms, such as the right way to express disagreement, address conflict, and make shifts in strategy.
As these interactions demonstrate, outgoing executives play a key role in building the foundation upon which their successors begin their tenure. Ironically enough, departing chiefs, rather than newcomers, may have the greater stake in the pragmatic, reasonable, and tangible aspects of leadership transition that are necessary to protect corporate interests.
Nathan Bennett (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Catherine W. and Edwin A. Wahlen Professor of Management at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Stephen A. Miles (email@example.com) is a managing partner at the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, where he oversees the worldwide executive assessment/succession planning practice.
This article is adapted from Bennett and Miles’s book, The Career Game (Stanford University Press, 2007).