Making leadership transition real

Nov 01, 2020

These are some of the common elements that are often present in the most successful leadership transitions.

When you have been working with A/E firms as long as I have, you will have seen many attempts at leadership transition for the CEO (or whatever the top person’s title is). Some of these transitions have been successful, while many have not.

Here are some of the common elements that are often present in the most successful transitions – and I will define “success” here as the company continues to grow and be profitable post-transition:

  1. It starts way before the baton is actually passed. Leaders at all levels – but especially the top – need to identify those who have the best odds of becoming their successors early on. This possibility needs to be clearly expressed to the potential successor so he or she can act accordingly. Nothing is worse than having someone you thought would be your successor leave because that individual didn’t know they were going to be the successor.
  2. There are no secrets. Why is the future successor often kept a secret – one that can be sprung on the employees with no warning after a business planning retreat or on the first of the year? Besides telling the successor what your thoughts are about them being the successor, share those plans with everyone else as well. Everyone needs to get used to the idea and expect the change before it happens, as opposed to them feeling ambushed when it happens.
  3. Whomever is picked is someone the other employees will respect. It helps if that successor has proved themselves as a high performer in the “business of the business.“ In other words, if the firm is a high design architectural firm, the successor has the best chances for acceptance if they are known to be a competent designer. Like it or not, this is the reality of our business.
  4. The person doing the handoff spends a great deal of time with their successor. There just isn’t any substitute for lots and lots of communication with your successor. There has to be a good relationship there if you want a smooth transition. It will take time from two already busy people to make that happen. If it has to be formally scheduled to make sure this does occur, then that should be done.
  5. The successor is open and willing to learn. Having some humility and respect for the predecessor is essential for the successor. They can’t behave in such a way that they seem to think they already know everything they will need to know to do the job.
  6. The leader who is making the transition doesn’t expect everything to be exactly the same as when they did the job, and they allow the successor to do their job. This is really hard for many older leaders in A/E firms but is absolutely necessary if they are going to give their successor a real chance to succeed. And even if they disagree with changes being made, other than expressing that to their successors, they should keep that to themselves. This gets particularly difficult if the financial results of the business go in the tank and the successor is depending on a strong performance from the firm so they are able to make their ongoing buyback payments related to the transition.
  7. When members of the organization try to go around the new boss to the old boss, the old boss discourages that. The predecessor needs to send the complainer or problem identifier to the successor or whomever would be more appropriate. This is so important. Anything less will communicate that the transition really wasn’t real.
  8. The successor, once in the job, doesn’t try to vilify or create distance from their predecessor. Some successors tend to do this and it’s almost always a mistake. The reason usually is based on ego or a desire to put their own stamp on the company, but it’s the last thing they should probably do. What may be forgotten is the predecessor had their own relationships with the people of the organization and any perceived attacks on them will create morale problems with those who cared for and respected the predecessor. Not to mention it just makes the successor look bad and untrustworthy if they would do that to the person responsible for elevating them.
  9. The successor stays on a quest to constantly identify the things the company did that made them successful so they can be sure to keep doing them, while at the same time working to change the things that are no longer appropriate because of a changing business environment and world. This is perhaps the most difficult task of all for a successor. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. At the same time, you may and probably do need to make some changes. Discerning between the two takes some real wisdom on the part of the successor. They don’t all have it – at least at first. That’s why it may be important for them to act with adequate deliberation – especially for their first year or two in their new role. Of course if the financial situation the firm finds itself in is dire, the successor will have to act more quickly.

One thing is for certain. It takes a lot of work from both predecessors and successors to make ANY transition successful. The relationship – if it is going to survive – will take a lot of empathy and mutual respect from both parties. Leaders – pick your successors wisely. And successors – act wisely once you get in the job.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.