"The old is gone, the new is here."
When talking about transformed lives, these words offer hope. But when used to describe an organization's transition from an established top leader to the next person, they may not have the same effect. In fact, the chances of success may be no better than a coin toss.
Research reported by The Leadership Transition Institute (LTI) shows that up to half of leadership transitions go poorly. Segmented further, 3 percent result in a quick and spectacular failure, while 47 percent result in a long, quiet struggle. When it comes to Christian organizations and ministries, the spectacular failures prove easy to spot and capture headlines in Christian media. But the quiet strugglers, the relatively enormous group, earn the label "quiet" for a reason—they receive no attention.
When I became the new president of a faith-based organization, I replaced both the founder and previous president. At previous organizations, as a staff leader I occupied courtside seats for top leadership transitions. So I've seen the good and not-so-good.
When the transition at the top involved me, I spent a couple months reading and readying the best I could. Along the way, I noticed oddities in how this topic is routinely examined, reported, and taught. First, most coaching comes from consultants rather than past participants—meaning expert opinions and detailed processes that exist for a price. Second, the angle taken typically belongs to the outgoing leader or the organization as a whole. The new leader's perspective goes unreported, underrepresented, and unfairly dismissed as less important.
So as spokesperson for all the new leaders like me, I developed a (free!) list of questions/cautions that the new leader should ask—as should those who desire to see him or her succeed. After capturing those answers, share them with the outgoing leader and the board or other governance body. Each question includes answers that the new leader will likely give, if assured of sufficient safety to be honest.
1. What does a successful transition look like for you?
Clear and complete handoff of decision making and the organization's voice. Receiving comprehensive details covering all organizational realities and historical knowledge. Personal, enthusiastic handoff of key relationships. Public recognition of new leader initiated by outgoing leader.
2. What does a new leader fear going into a transition?
Partial completion, meaning the outgoing leader still walks the halls or takes calls. Kibitzing, which involves the outgoing leader offering opinions when unsolicited. Leadership team or board with split allegiances. Meetings attended by the outgoing leader. The outgoing leader reviewing new plans/strategies.
3. What does a new leader wish the outgoing leader understood?
The only reason I'm here is because you decided to leave, so it's right to expect you to leave. Plenty of difference exists between starting/building an organization and leading it in the future—so relax and know your role will be forever remembered. Eventually every organization must change or it will one day whither and drop.
4. What difficult heart checks should a new leader make about the transition?
Do I feel insecure because I did not start the organization or built it to where it is today? Do I believe I'd have more respect if I had started it? Is anything I think, say, or do motivated by a desire to tear down the outgoing leader to build up my ego? Is my primary driver personal success or organizational success? Do I have someone safe to talk through any "yes" responses?